Wave of Free Speech Prosecutions in Rwanda

Human Rights Watch

Judicial authorities in Rwanda are prosecuting opposition members, journalists, and commentators on the basis of their speech and opinions, Human Rights Watch said today. Throughout 2020 and 2021, Human Rights Watch monitored trials in which judicial authorities pursued politically motivated prosecutions and perpetuated a culture of intolerance of dissent.

Less than two years out from the 2024 presidential election campaign season, the Rwandan government should ensure an end to violations against civil society activists, journalists, and opposition figures. The government should also protect their right to freedom of expression – a precondition to creating a conducive environment for free and fair elections.

“Judicial authorities in Rwanda, lacking the independence to stand up and protect free speech in accordance with international law, have unjustly convicted and jailed people based on their protected speech and opinions,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “All those jailed unjustly should be immediately and unconditionally released, and the abusive legal framework that allowed their prosecution should be reviewed and brought in line with international free speech standards.”

Since the publication of a March 2021 report on the arrests of, and threats against, several Rwandans for posts on YouTube, Human Rights Watch has monitored trials and reviewed trial documents and verdicts to examine the evidence and arguments of prosecutorial authorities, and the basis for judges’ rulings.

Researchers also reviewed content published on various channels managed by journalists and commentators on trial and interviewed 11 opposition members and people who post on YouTube. The cases documented are not exhaustive – Human Rights Watch also received information about other similar cases.

On March 3, 2022, Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to Justice Minister Emmanuel Ugirashebuja to share information about the cases it has documented and to request information on the Rwandan authorities’ steps to address violations of the right to freedom of expression. The government has not responded.

Rwanda has very few opposition parties, and human rights organizations and independent media remain weak. Victoire Ingabire, who was the president of the unregistered opposition party FDU-Inkingi before founding Dalfa-Umurinzi in November 2019, was released from prison in 2018. Members of her party have repeatedly been harassed, threatened, and arrested, or have died or disappeared in suspicious circumstances. Since October 2021, at least eight members of her party have been arrested and charged with offenses, including spreading rumors and forming a criminal association, in relation to a book they acquired and an online training session they attended to learn strategies for peaceful dissent.

Journalists using YouTube as a platform have also been targeted for prosecution for not registering with the Rwanda Media Commission (RMC) or for publishing information that contradicts the government’s version of certain events, such as the suspicious death in custody of Kizito Mihigo, a gospel singer and activist, or disappearances of government opponents.

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