Rwanda’s Kagame and journalist get into Twitter spat

President Paul Kagame is a leader who draws sharply divided opinions–praise from some for rebuilding Rwanda after the 1994 genocide and criticism from others over a record of repression of dissent and the press. On Saturday, a tweet critical of Kagame by British columnist Ian Birrell sparked a heated exchange about press freedom between the two men on the social networking site. 

“No-one in media, UN or human rights groups has the moral right to criticise me, says despotic & deluded @PaulKagame,” tweeted Birrell in response to a statement made by the president in a May 13 interview with Financial Times Africa Editor William Wallis. “I don’t think anybody out there in the media, UN, human rights organisations, has any moral right whatsoever to level any accusations against me or against Rwanda,” Kagame had stated.

Birrell’s comment drew an immediate rebuke from @PaulKagame, the president’s official public account. What followed was an extraordinary exchange, only made possible by microblogs, mainly about the state of press freedom and freedom of expression, or their lack thereof, in Rwanda.

Soon, Rwanda’s foreign affairs minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, fired off from her own public Twitter account in defense of the president. “Ian have u ever heard of Rwa National Dialogue? R u fam w Rwa prez monthly press conf?PK 2 secure 2fear crtics@home,” read the first of a series of tweets from her public account.

Then Birrell made note of a sudden flurry of new tweets attacking him.

“Interesting: getting series of critical tweets on Rwanda from brand new Twitter accounts such as @AIToure & @MortonAlex #usualtactics, he tweeted.

“PK is a widely admired leader on the continent. Rw’s progress and peace surrounded by a sea of instability is undoubted,” tweeted @AIToure, while @MortonAlex defended the government’s restrictions on press freedom and freedom of expression, conflating such freedoms with the specter of stirring interethnic tensions similar to those that led to the 1994 genocide. “Ian do you know that Rwanda outlaws ethnic politics? And “journalism” intended to cause “ethnic divisions”? do you understand why?” read one tweet.

Two Rwandan journalists have been languishing in jail since July 2010, serving harsh prison sentences under vague and sweeping laws against “genocide ideology” and “divisionism” for columns critical of the government.

Besides prosecuting critics offline, Kagame’s administration has stepped up efforts to counter critics online. Editors of critical news tabloids who were forced into exile after the government banned their publications in 2010 ahead of presidential elections subsequently reported their web sites blocked in Kigali. In March, the Kigali-based news website Great Lakes Voice reported that all top officials had been ordered to begin using social media platforms to counter  negative or opposition “propaganda.”  The Kigali Wire blog also reported increased presence of the government on social media, citing the “creation of a number of new accounts including, @UrugwiroVillage (the official account of the president’s office) and @RwandaPolice.

Eventually, the voice of wisdom of the Kagame vs. Birrell clash on Twitter belonged to @sonjasugira, a self-described Rwandan-American. “Twitter really isn’t the medium for these kinds of discussions. only end up talking at (not with) each other,” she tweeted to @Minzo, a Kagame supporter.