Kagame’s statement came after the Rwandan Supreme Court made a decision to uphold a law that punishes insulting or defaming the president with at least five years in prison. Rwanda’s chief justice defended the law, saying that “insulting the president is harming the public order.”
At the same time, the court drew an explicit distinction between the head of state and other public officials who, it declared, should face public scrutiny for their actions. It was this apparent contradiction that seems to have moved Kagame to action.
In a rare public statement, he took issue with the ruling, saying the president is a public official like all the rest and should also be held to the same standards of criticism. He also said defamation should be a civil, and not criminal, matter.
On the face of things, Kagame’s clarification ought to bode well for freedom of expression and the press. There’s just one problem: I don’t believe him.
He has tricked us before. Kagame had publicly said he didn’t want to run for a third term, but behind closed doors, his aides found a way to allow him to stay in power. He now has the right to rule until 2034.
In 2011, one year after his reelection, his cabinet published a new media policy that was thought to loosen up the grip on the media. The changes led to the privatization of some state media and ushered in a professional self-regulation regime in 2013. I became the first journalist to lead the self-regulatory body, the Rwanda Media Commission.
But a year later, Kagame and his entourage made their stance clear. They shut down the BBC Kinyarwanda service for allegedly airing a documentary that included the views of Kagame’s critics. Then, in 2015, I had to leave my country amid threats for doing my job.
Now, journalists in Rwanda don’t work freely. Media censorship or self-censorship is common, and with reason: Critical independent journalists have disappeared, been imprisoned or, like me, been forced into exile. Some independent blogs and websites have been made unavailable. Freedom House gives Rwanda a press-freedom status of “not free.”
And despite some of his conciliatory rhetoric, Kagame is still feared across the country. Opponents and dissidents have been jailed, disappeared or killed under mysterious circumstances. The former chief spy Patrick Karegeya was murdered in a hotel room in South Africa in 2013. Another former general and Kagame confidant, Kayumba Nyamwasa, sought asylum in South Africa and has so far escaped three murder attempts. Senior military officials such as Frank Rusagara and Tom Byabagamba are rotting in prison under lengthy sentences after voicing criticism of the government. The dangers faced by critics highlight a grim reality: Rwanda offers little room for dissent.
When it comes to freedom of the press and expansion of political space in Rwanda, Kagame’s regime seems allergic to real progress. His recent statement on defamation may lead to the scrapping of the law, but that doesn’t mean Kagame is a visionary who should be embraced just yet. His regime could still persecute critics with civil suits and clamp down on opposition using other means.
History tells us that authoritarians don’t easily change their attitudes. They often die trying to continue doing what they do best: clinging to power.
If Kagame has really changed his approach toward criticism and now sees himself as an ordinary leader who can be challenged, replaced and reproached, then he should release those imprisoned under his government’s flawed laws and take steps to ensure that independent media is supported. Until then, he will remain little more than a wolf in sheep’s skin.