New YORK (IDN) — In the years he’s been president, Rwandan President Paul Kagame has never learned to love free speech on the internet.
Long before the trial of prominent YouTube commentator and genocide survivor, Yvonne Idamange, the President issued a dire warning:
“Those that you hear speak on the internet, whether they are in America, in South Africa, or in France, they think they are far.
“They are far, but they are close to the fire. The day they get closer, the fire will burn them.”
“Freedom of expression? Freedom of the press? Some of them insult people daily,” he said on the 16th anniversary of the genocide.
“They insult me every day. I could care less. In their cartoons, they call me Hitler—I ignore them, this doesn’t get to me at all. I hold them all in contempt.”
For his bluster, President Kagame has the dubious distinction of appearing with leaders of 37 countries on a page that Reporters Without Borders calls the “Predators Gallery”—portraits of leaders who in their positions of power suppress press freedom by targeting, harassing, jailing and attacking journalists.
The dubious award comes as Rwandan social media activist Yvonne Idamange, a 42-year-old mother of four, has been sentenced to 15 years behind bars and fined the equivalent of $2,000 for using social media to accuse Kagame and his government of dictatorship and of exploiting the genocide.
At her trial by the Kigali High Court, judges concurred with the president. Her opinions, they said, “incited violence and public uprising, denigrated genocide artefacts, spread rumours and violent assault,” among other charges.
Her request that the trial be broadcast online was rebuffed. She accused the court of bias and boycotted the proceedings.
Human Rights Watch has been documenting the government’s crackdown on speech. In June 2021, they reported, more than 20 bloggers and YouTubers had been detained or disappeared since the beginning of the year.
This year, Reporters without Borders included President Kagame in its “Predators Gallery”.
“Since taking office,” they wrote, “Kagame hides behind the memory of the 1994 genocide in order to justify tight control of journalists and media organizations in Rwanda. The crime of “insulting the person of the president of the Republic” has been used mainly to muzzle the press.
Other African leaders on the Gallery include Issaias Afwerki of Eritrea, Ismaïl Omar Guelleh of Djibouti, Paul Biya of Cameroon, Salva Kiir of South Sudan, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. [IDN-InDepthNews – 05 October 2021]