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A snapshot of Rwanda’s Genocide Law

Has the historically weighty Rwanda Hate Speech Genocide Law, intended to thwart hate speech in Rwanda, transformed into a tool now used against dissidents in the country? The Human Rights lawyer Louis Gitinywas writes about the mechanisms that led to the genocide in Rwanda, about the efforts made to avoid history repeating itself, and about how fine the line can be between censorship and democracy. Today, instead, the government uses this law to silence and to supress people. “In today’s Rwanda the law has lost its initial function,” writes Gitinywa.

Credits Text: Louis Gitinywa September 22 2020

A Snapshot of Rwanda’s Law on genocide ideology and denial; the blurred lines between a hate speech legislation and criminalizing Public dissent.

Freedom of expression is one of the most fundamental human rights. However, there is a fierce debate on the necessity to restrict some types of free speech, and in the core of this debate lies a fundamental question: to what degree can a democratic society tolerate freedom of expression? Especially the “free speech” that adds fuel to fire, known as hate speech.

This debate still has constant actuality in my home country Rwanda.

Rwanda’s historic context is marred by decades of ethnically-defined political violence, and media taking the role of being a megaphone spewing hatred. For Rwanda, there are abundant examples of media, like the infamous newspaper "Kangura" that had already in the early 1990’s started an anti-Tutsi campaign with the publication of the ten commandments of Hutus, which, amongst other things specified that Hutus who are married Tutsi – or engaged in business with Tutsis, would be traitors.

Later on the eruption of "Radio Television Libre de Mille Collines" (RTLM) on the media scene, which used to air during the genocide and regularly told their audience to go to “work” – an euphemism that used mean killing Tutsis.

Since its ascent to power in the wake of 1994 genocide against Tutsis, The Rwandan Patriotic Front (the ruling party) positioned themselves as the liberators of the country, as they pushed towards Rwandans a narrative based on liberation from the violence of the genocide and the civil war, but also liberation from a legacy of politics of hatred, distrust and ethnic conflict. Thereafter, the regime enacted the law to encourage national unity and restrict hate speech mostly known as the law against genocide ideology. This legislation was necessary given the Rwandan society post genocide context, but through this legislation any public discussion based on ethnicity has also been prohibited.

The government justified its strict control over public discourse by pointing out the role of the media in mobilizing ethnic violence during the genocide, as well as for the sake of preserving national unity. However, the law is broadly defined. The vague language of the law on genocide ideology fails to establish clarity and predictability on to what behaviour is prohibited. Although several amendments the law remains vague and fails to articulate to the public what conduct is prohibited and criminal. One specific example is the provision of article three of the law which defines genocide ideology:

Genocide ideology shall be any deliberate act committed in public whether orally, written, or taped means – or by any other means which may show that a person is characterized by ethnic, religious, nationality, or racial based with the aim to support the genocide or advocate for the commission of the genocide. Clearly this provision fails to establish whether journalists should be prosecuted for reporting on cases of alleged genocide ideology.

Another example of the vague language is the use of terminology such as any violence against a genocide survivor,[4] and this clearly leads to the expansive interpretation of the law.

Is hate speech legislation or a tool of targeting public dissent?

This broadly defined genocide ideology law has contributed to create an environment of self-censorship because of fear of the state repression and use of its coercive power. In addition, it’s a matter of concern, as the current legislation hinders any attempts to public debate on national issues given the broad and sweeping nature of the law, which permits and favour prosecution motivated by interpretation efforts rather than an objective analysis of the facts or direct meaning of statements.

In the long term, with this legislation the Rwandan government has not only successfully eliminated public dissent or criticism, but this also has a negative impact on the diversity of the information landscape as the law restrict the ability of journalists to inform citizens on public issues, as it has created a culture of fear due to the threat of wrongful accusation.

In today’s Rwanda, the Genocide ideology law has lost its primary function, which was to prevent the abuse of freedom of expression such as hate speech and public incitation to violence. It has become a political tool to muzzle public dissent, cracking down against political opponents. Over the last decade, the regime has been using this legislation to aggressively counter opinions expressed that doesn’t fit the official narrative. Political opposition figures are convicted under the false pretext of Genocide ideology for criticizing public policies, and even some journalists have been sentenced to heavy prison terms[5] for covering sensitive issues. Always using the same patterns of regularly harassing, intimidating and disbanding the political opposition and the civil society organisations.

In addition, through the expansive interpretation of the law, the state have to secure its hegemonic position by silencing its critics.

So, what to do next? Genocide ideology remains a sensitive issue in Rwanda, especially given the fact that it has been used as a tool for the government to suppress their political opponents and stifle public criticism. This “the winner takes it all-dynamic” suit the context of Rwanda post genocide politics where the ruling party the Rwanda Patriotic Front holds a tight grip on the state, and has centralized within the ruling party leadership circle when it comes to economical as well as political power. Often members of the civil society, rights activists and journalists are regularly criticised in the pro-government media for drawing attention to the structural deficiencies of the Law on genocide ideology, which meant to prevent hate speech rather than criminalizing criticism.

The government of Rwanda urgently needs to reform the Genocide ideology law by clarifying what is legal and illegal. There is a need to upgrade the law and adjust to international human rights standards.

In order to avoid abuses or any misuse of the law, it’s critical to differentiate genuine cases of hate speech and genocide ideology to legitimate freedom of speech and expression. However, legal amendments and government political will towards reforms is not sufficient to stem the chilling effect of the past legislation. We also need to reestablish confidence and trust in the national judicial system. This will also require a review of the cases of individuals currently convicted under the Genocide ideology law as a sign of the government good will and commitment to freedom of expression.

[4] Article 11 of the law no 84/2013on the crime of genocide ideology and other related offences.

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