According to Human Rights Watch, threats by the ruling party or government officials, and fear of prosecution, have created an environment that can only be described as hostile to free speech and demanding self-censorship in Rwanda.
After the 1994 genocide that claimed over 800,000 lives, the Rwandan government in strides to maintain stability in the country slowed moves to allow greater press freedom through laws that threaten harsh penalties for continued intolerance for opposition that make it risky to undertake investigative journalism. “In Rwanda, being consistently critical of government almost guarantees some form of reprisal whether arrest, harassment, or a mysterious disappearance,” Lewis Mudge, the Central Africa Director at Human Rights Watch said.
A Rwandan journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal agreed with the Human Rights Watch opinion. “Journalists involved in critical independent reporting in Rwanda face a risk of prosecution and imprisonment which has contributed to self-censorship but disappearance and murder of opposition members has similarly made journalists and internet users refrain from topics that are critical to the government or disruptive to national unity and reconciliation,” he said. Mudge notes that Rwanda’s track record of intolerance and abusive reprisals against critics raise serious questions regarding the safety of journalists and bloggers.
In May, 2019, President Kagame warned opponents of his government when he said “those making noise on the internet do so because they far from the fire, if they dare get close to it, they’ll face its heat.” Although government control over the media has loosened, many journalists still remain fearful that the laws are not enough to stop harassment as evidence of journalists threatened and imprisoned for their work still prevails. The country’s penal code (article234) still threatens imprisonment of up to a year for insulting the government.
Some of the journalists I contacted for this story feared to share information regarding the topic. Therefore, journalists operate and survive only by accepting the unwritten rules about taboo subjects such as activities of the military and criticism of the president.
The hopes for media freedom were hobbled in 2015 after the resignation of the chairman of the Rwanda Media Council (RMC), a fledgling self-regulatory body that had made progress in advancing media independence. Fred Muvunyi, fled the country amid tensions between the commission and the Rwandan government.