The past two decades have seen rapid and overwhelming progress in Rwanda, a country that was hit by the worst post cold war atrocity in 1994 when up to a million people perished in genocide. The 1994 Rwanda genocide against the Tutsi destroyed the country leaving no standing government institution, and no infrastructure and public services. It also left a large number of widows and orphans and a population traumatised by what it had witnessed and in many cases engaged in. There seemed no hope of a future. It was therefore the responsibility of the new government to revive this perishing state. Surprisingly within only 20 years, Rwanda has been hailed for its outstanding economic progress, the implementation of Millennium Development Goals, improvement of infrastructure, health care, education, zero tolerance to corruption, gender empowerment and security. Foreign aid to support the country’s budget has also been reduced from 100% in 1995 to 40% in 2012 .
However the past five years has seen growing criticism against the Rwandan leadership internationally. Activists and journalists are condemning the government for its laws that limit freedom of press and expression in the country. The media is not very diverse and is concentrated in the capital Kigali. Some outlets are privately-owned but government-controlled ones (Radio Rwanda and the national TV station TVR) dominate. Some independent newspapers have been pressured into closing down by the government. Relations between the government and foreign media are also very difficult  and Rwanda has dropped more than 50 places on the world press freedom index to 162nd – where with the possible exception of Iran its neighbours in the list are all dictatorships . Additionally, Amnesty international has stated that it is unsafe to speak out in Rwanda due to restrictions on freedom of expression. In response, the government down plays these critics by pointing out that the media played a big part in preparing and carrying out genocide. Outlets such as Radio télévision libre des milles collines (RTLM) and the newspaper Kangura encouraged genocide and helped direct militias and so there is need for a certain degree of restriction. Observers blame Kagame’s authoritarian style of leadership for this , but it appears that, for the time being at least, many Rwandans are also scared of political freedom and freedom of expression for the instability they might trigger. Can this hinder economic development and progress?
President Kagame though considered a visionary leader has made Rwanda a country based on one man’s ideas. He has silenced critics, opposition and any counter arguments that may not support his opinions through tough rules imposed against the media and free speech. This sparked misunderstandings within the government forcing 4 four high rank officials in exile, one, an ex-intelligence chief was recently murdered in South Africa.
Rwanda is essentially a hard-line, one-party, secretive police state with a façade of democracy. To avoid future conflict and government break down Kagame needs to convene a genuine, inclusive, unconditional and comprehensive national dialogue with the aim of preparing and strengthening the country’s future progress.
The fact that most Rwandans still want him to run for re-election after his two terms in 2017 shows how much he has controlled people to believe he is the only potential leader in a country of more than 11 million citizens. If Rwanda is to have a stable future democracy it needs to be recognised that the opposition are patriots too and should be entitled to freedom of speech and press to give them an opportunity to share their views on how the country can be improved. For democracy in Rwanda to progress the country needs to accept the idea of freedom of speech and a ‘loyal opposition’.
Rwanda does not limit freedoms of press and speech as such but discourages the use of sensitive articles or speeches that would provoke insecurity in a country still trying to heal from the wounds of genocide. This cannot be therefore considered abusing people’s rights.
Misunderstandings with the 4 officials were not as a result of restricted freedoms but instead the desire of power and cannot be taken a model for Rwanda’s future.
Past conflict broke out due to divisionism which was given space through hate speeches and publications a behaviour that has no room in the country today – indeed there are anti divisionism laws.
Having a large population supporting a leader doesn’t mean they are controlled, he has done so much to revive lost hope hence winning the favour of the people.
One of the major factors that exacerbated genocide ideology was the “AKAZU” controlled media which made most of the Hutu population wrongfully obey authority and government propaganda of divisionism.
This was achieved by proclaiming that the Tutsi are snakes and cockroaches in newspapers, and directing the Hutu extremists to where killings were to be conducted on radio RTLM. Meanwhile they also refused to broadcast speeches calling out for unity among people helping to lead to the assassination of the then Prime minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana who opposed government restrictions. There was no space to question policies and ideas that were encouraging genocide by manipulating people to believe it was right path for Rwanda.
The genocide should therefore serve as an example that restricting freedoms of speech and press can cause severe damage. This is especially harmful to a healing and reconciling country like Rwanda that needs the freedom to debate the past and analyse how far it has come openly. Rwanda should learn from the past that freedom of speech is necessary to prevent conflict while having only one side potentially exacerbates it.
Divisionism in Rwanda did not spark as a result of the controlled media and government propaganda in 1994, there were killings reported in the 1960’s 1970’s and 1980’s even before the media was part of society. This came as a result of long standing grudges and misunderstandings between the Tutsi and Hutu groups in the country.
That the media bears responsibility for spreading hate speech and broadcasting where the other could be killed moreover does not absolve the individuals involved. Each individual had the choice whether they acted on what the media was telling them. In a completely free media there would be some of the same hate speech and it would still be up to the individual to decide whether to follow that message. Far better to ensure that message cannot be aired in the first place.
Rwanda, though a progressing country is still aid dependent which has been a backbone for its achievements today. Spoiling Rwanda’s relations with the international community would therefor be destabilising Rwanda’s focus and growth. This has been evident when some countries cut aid to Rwanda recently following allegations of the government supporting insecurity in Congo .
Most donor governments are strong backers of human rights and freedom. Continued restrictions to freedom of speech may provoke international reaction through cutting aid and trade ties a move that may hinder the success of Rwanda’s goals. Aid has been cut on other human rights issues for example donor countries have recently acted to cut aid to Uganda as a result of their criminalisation of homosexuality.
Many donors have been deeply reluctant to stop or reduce aid, whatever the arguments over eastern Congo. Donors like to see their money have an impact, something that Rwanda’s transformation has provided. There might be concern about freedom of speech and the press but donors recognise that the way to change this is not to simply stop aid; an act that simply damages those the donors are trying to help not those who are limiting freedom of speech.
Progress in Africa has been hindered by factors like corruption, conflicts and poor infrastructure, all of which are linked to the incompetent or greedy leaders.
Rwanda is a different case, ranked among the best countries with a strong and focused leadership in Africa, the country has set up clear policies like EDPRS [Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy] which aims to change Rwanda from an agriculture based economy to knowledge and service economy . It is well known for zero tolerance to corruption, improved infrastructure and technology all of which are core factors in achieving development. In Africa, Rwanda tops list of easiest countries to do business a move that has encouraged more investors into the country.
Limited freedom of speech and press does not hinder economic development. What matters is that the government is trusted to fulfil all its commitments. After all, nothing has stopped China progressing despite human rights violations and censorship of both free speech and the press.
Restricted press and speech also limits political debate and engagement which are crucially needed in adopting fruitful policies. The best policies are those that are rigorously debated and analysed. The current leadership may have acted to check corruption but without institutionalised freedom of the press to encourage whistleblowing there is no guarantee that corruption won’t return in the future. Rwanda’s progress is therefore dependent on individuals, fine in the short term but development takes decades. In the long term for a state to progress there has to be balancing mechanisms so as to prevent misrule and importantly persuade investors there will be stability.
Moreover Rwanda is trying to create a knowledge economy. It is not like China’s creation of a manufacturing based economy, instead it relies upon critical thinking, ideas and analysis – all things that benefit from freedom of speech.
Rwanda is an emerging democracy healing from the wounds of the horrific past. To achieve the set vision, there should be a priority which in this case is economic development.
A large number of Rwandans believe that the government should focus on transforming the nation economically although it may mean restricting free speech, which has prompted a huge participation in government development programs like Ubudehe. Freedom of speech and press needs to be restricted if the government wants to engage in unlimited development; there is no time to engage in long debates over whether a particular project is being implemented the correct way. Having freedom of speech and press would hinder the government’s ability to manage the resources of the state and to encourage investors who don’t want to have protests to their building factories, or have labour complaining about not being paid enough.
Whether a country puts rights or the economy first is up to the individual country, Rwanda has chosen.
While the government of Rwanda has chosen the economy this does not mean the people agree – simply that the government controls the narrative so giving the impression, or persuading them that they agree.
Restricting free speech and press has increased critics from the Rwandan diaspora evidence that inside the country, citizens have no way of putting forward their say. Economic growth is not the only kind of progress. In order to drive forward the economy Rwanda is stunting the progress of individual rights.
Freedom of speech and the Press is not the only way of creating accountability in a country – especially a comparatively small one such as Rwanda. Rwanda has been ranked a transparent and is the least corrupt state in East Africa  where everyone is accountable and equal before the law.
How can this be without an aggressive free press? Annually, all government officials are cross examined by locals publicly in a forum called national dialogue “Umushyikirano”, to ensure that they meet the needs of citizens and assess their performance. This has given Rwandans courage to express their desires and feel much valued in the process of policy making and engagement. It puts ministers and even the Prime Minister on the spot on individual issues. Restricted press and speech is therefore rendered irrelevant by such programs as people can question authorities and demand justification directly rather than relying on the press.
In Africa, most countries lack transparent government systems and institutions, a factor responsible for continued corruption, poor governance and crime which in turn destroy progress in societies , but this is not the case with regard to Rwanda.
It is a wrong assertion that Rwandans are valued in the process of policy making when their genuine opinions are limited to a certain level. The national dialogue is a three day event and cannot cover the concerns of more than 11 million Rwandans. Moreover when people still fear to say the truth as they go through in daily life , how can one expect such people to raise the right issues on a public platform with the most powerful people in the country?
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