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Rwanda: Amnesty International Calls for Review of Genocide Ideology Law, Media Law

(June 9, 2011) On June 3, 2011, Amnesty International (AI) issued a report titled Unsafe to Speak Out: Restrictions on Freedom of Expression in Rwanda, in which it criticizes the use of that country's 2008 genocide ideology law and 2009 media law to stifle legitimate criticism and calls upon the Rwandan government to fast track the review process of these laws so that they are in line with Rwanda's obligations under international law. (AI, Unsafe to Speak Out: Restrictions on Freedom of Expression in Rwanda (June 2011).)

One of the main problems with the laws is the abstract nature of their provisions, whose meaning is indiscernible even to experts, according to AI. For instance, the genocide ideology law defines the crime of “genocide ideology” as follows:

an aggregate of thoughts characterized by conduct, speeches, documents and other acts aiming at exterminating or inciting others to exterminate people basing [sic] on ethnic group, origin, nationality, region, color, physical appearance, sex, language, religion or political opinion, committed in normal periods or during war. (Law Relating to the Punishment of the Crime of Genocide Ideology, No. 2 of 2008 (July 23, 2008), art. 2, Ministry of Justice of Rwanda website.)

The law lays out a list of acts through which the crime may be manifested, including “marginalizing, laughing at one's misfortune, defaming, mocking, and boasting.” (Id. art. 3.) A survey by AI found that even judges, attorneys, and human rights workers could not provide any concrete understanding of the definition and that these experts acknowledged the “broad and abstract” nature of the provision. (AI, supra.)

The Rwandan government's stance on the matter has been contradictory at best. On the one hand, it recognized the shortcomings of the laws and in 2010 initiated a review of the genocide ideology law, for the process of which it had invited the participation of international human rights advocacy groups including Human Rights Watch and AI. (Constance Johnson, Rwanda: Genocide Ideology Law Being Reviewed, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (Aug. 20, 2010).) The government had also given indications that the review process would include the media law, which is said to have been used as a tool to stifle media outlets critical of the government in the months leading up to the 2010 presidential elections. (AI, supra.)

On the other hand, in its response to the recent AI report, the government claims that freedom of expression is guaranteed under the Rwandan Constitution and that Rwanda has “a vibrant and growing media community and varied political discourse.” This seems to suggest that the government no longer recognizes the shortcomings of the two laws. (Kezio-Musoke David, Amnesty Urges Rwanda to Finish Genocide Law Review, REUTERS (June 3, 2011).)