Rwanda’s media regulator has said the election body does not have the mandate to regulate social media use by presidential candidates, a measure seen as an assault on free speech.
The National Electoral Commission (NEC) ruled last month that once campaigning starts on July 14, any social media updates by presidential candidates must be submitted to them for pre-approval.
However, the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA) which oversees the media, said in a statement late Wednesday that the NEC had “no mandate to regulate or interrupt the use of social media by citizens.”
“RURA as the statutory regulator has not had any discussions with NEC on this subject and would like to reaffirm the right of citizens to express themselves on social media … while respecting existing laws,” wrote spokesman Anthony Kulamba.
The ruling created a furore, with opposition leaders seeing it as a bid to block criticism of President Paul Kagame while US ambassador Erica Barks-Ruggles said it was a “very, very serious limitation on the freedom of expression.”
The measure even raised eyebrows within government, with Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo writing on Twitter: “No offence to Rwanda NEC but Rwandans should express themselves freely on social media in election season.”
Since the end of the 1994 genocide in which around 800,000 mostly Tutsi people died, Rwanda has been praised for its stability and economic performance. However, it often comes under fire for a lack of political freedom.
Rwanda is constitutionally a multi-party system but there is practically no opposition within the country.
All recognised parties generally support the policy decisions made by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) — with the exception of the small Democratic Green Party which was the only one to object to 2015 constitution changes allowing Kagame to seek re-election.
Only four candidates have declared their intention to run against Kagame in the August 4 poll.
Kagame has been in charge since taking power at the head of a rebel army in 1994 and has already served two seven-year terms as president.
Kagame won previous elections with well over 90 percent of the vote.
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