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During the years that preceded the genocide against the Tutsi, there was an increase in hate speech against people of Tutsi ethnicity and those who did not hold views similar to those of the government.

Members of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel group made up of Rwandan refugees that had launched an attack against the Rwandan army in the early 90s, were described in the media and by some government officials at the time as Inyangarwanda or enemies of state and as Abana b’inyenzi or children of cockroaches.

Rwandans of Tutsi ethnicity and members of the opposition not affiliated to the ruling party were repeatedly described as inyenzi, or cockroaches, as inzoka or snakes, and as ibyisto or spies. During the genocide these people were targeted, hunted down and killed.

After the genocide and the ensuing civil war that was ultimately won by the RPF, legislation that forbids the formation of political parties along ethnic lines and that punishes speech deemed hateful or promoting ethnic or racial division was passed. Moreover, over the decades, various high-ranking officials in Rwanda have been heard calling on the youth to actively participate on social media to neutralize, to refute and to fight against those who talk about things that are not relevant, that are not in line with Rwanda, or who share untrue stories that aim to spread the genocide ideology.

These measures have done nothing to counter hate speech, particularly against those who dare or are perceived to challenge the Rwandan government’s narrative or policies.

I know this because I have experienced it.

I returned to Rwanda from exile in the Netherlands in January 2010 intending to register my political party and run in the upcoming presidential election. On the day of my return to Rwanda, I visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in Gisozi and gave a speech urging unity and reconciliation. I said that for Rwanda to experience true reconciliation, we need to recognise all crimes committed in Rwanda, including the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi and the crimes against humanity committed against the Hutu. My opinion was based on United Nations Report S/1994/1405.

Just three months later, I was arrested and dragged into a politically motivated judicial process. The courts in Rwanda convicted me of “grossly minimizing the genocide” and  “conspiracy to harm the existing authority and the constitutional principles using terrorism, armed violence or any other type of violence”. I appealed to the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights, which ruled that the Rwandan state had violated my right to a fair trial. In 2018, I was released early by presidential pardon, after eight years of detention, five of which I spent in solitary confinement.

Since my release, I have continued to advocate for the establishment of genuine democracy and respect for human rights and the rule of law in Rwanda. My detractors have also been working hard on social media to turn the public against me and discourage me in my struggle by constantly using hate speech against me, describing me as a “genocide denier”, a “terrorist” and a “tropical nazi”. A TV Channel in Rwanda called My250TV has even gone as far as to openly state that “I should be arrested at least and killed at best”.

Three years ago, I flagged the use of hate speech against me to the agents of the Rwanda Investigation Bureau and was assured that the concerned individuals would be impressed upon to cease their actions. However, the campaign of hate against me continues unabated.

Since my release, I have continued to advocate for the establishment of genuine democracy and respect for human rights and the rule of law in Rwanda.

As soon as I published an op-ed that argued that having the largest number of women in parliament is not enough to liberate women in Rwanda and that without political reforms Rwandans would continue to seek refuge abroad, Rwandan officials of ministerial and ambassadorial rank as well as members of parliament joined in the smear campaign against me and publicly stated on social media that I support a “genocidal ideology” and that my speech is inciting yet another genocide in Rwanda. Others have even gone as far as claiming on international platforms that I had escaped justice for acts of genocide.

Hate speech is not only deployed against me; It is deployed against anyone. No one is spared —Rwandan or foreigner—who dares or is perceived to challenge the Rwandan government’s narrative or policy. We are referred to as abanzi b’igihugu or enemies of the state, as ibigarasha or waste, as those who imbibed the genocide ideology with our mothers’ milk.

Hate speech is also used against Rwandan refugees who have not returned to Rwanda, their refusal to return constantly attributed to their guilty conscience because of the crimes of genocide they committed in Rwanda. Moreover, in the same way that members of the RPF were described as children of cockroaches when they were fighting to return to their motherland, the descendants of public officials of the regime overthrown by the RPF are today described as “children of genocidaires”—but only when they challenge or question the Rwandan government.

Freedom On The Net 2022 has also observed that social media accounts with government affiliations regularly harass individuals who post online comments considered critical of the government. It reports that the Rwandan government has mobilized social media users to counter the views of individuals deemed to be “enemies of the state”. This so-called “Twitter Army” has systematically attacked and discredited individuals and media outlets that criticize the government. It also explains that these social media users are rewarded for their attacks with appointments or nominations to jobs at government institutions and private companies that have ties to the ruling party.

It is, however, important to also highlight the use of hate speech against Rwandan authorities by some of their opponents who described them as abavantara or foreigners and Inyenzi or cockroaches.

This so-called “Twitter Army” has systematically attacked and discredited individuals and media outlets that criticize the government.

What the foregoing demonstrates is that Rwanda has yet to attain reconciliation. It also shows that the country’s elites are failing to engage in healthy debate on the real issues confronting Rwanda today in a manner that reflects mutual respect and Rwandaness. It also gives the impression that the priority in Rwanda is to silence dissenting voices and restrict the freedom of expression.

But it does not have to be this way.

To counter hate speech, Rwanda needs to develop an efficient judicial system, one that is independent and able to competently enforce sanctions against anyone who uses hate speech. To avoid mimicking the situation prevailing in pre-genocide Rwanda, senior officials calling on the youth to use social media to challenge Rwandan government opponents must be explicit in the manner in which the youth should go about doing this. It should be in a manner that eschews hate speech and that reflects Rwandan cultural values of dignity, unity or Rwandaness, and nobility, as highlighted in the Rwandan Cultural Values in National Development, a document published by the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission.