Decision of Rwanda’s Electoral Commission to Vet Online Messages of Presidential Candidates Unacceptable – AFEX

The African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX) is deeply concerned about the decision of the Electoral Commission of Rwanda to vet and approve the messages of presidential candidates before they are published on social media platforms.

The directive which was announced during a press conference held on May 26, 2017 is expected to take effect from July 14, 2017 the date set for the commencement of official campaign. Other campaign materials such as photographs are also to be submitted to the seven electoral commissioners at least 48 hours before publication.

According to a report by AFP, the Electoral Commission’s head, Mr. Kalisa Mbanda said on May 29, 2017 that the decision to review the messages is to ensure that the messages were not contrary to the country’s laws.

“We are asking candidates to present to us their messages, their drafts to verify that they are not against the law,” said Mbanda.

Mr. Mbanda added that messages that are not approved by the commission cannot be published.

AFEX finds the decision of Rwanda’s electoral commission highly unacceptable and uncalled for. It is indeed a blatant attempt to muzzle free speech ahead of the elections in the country. As clearly indicated in a statement by the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA) on May 31, 2017, the EC does not have the “mandate to regulate or interrupt the use of social media by citizens.”

Article 38 of the Constitution of the Republic of Rwanda 2003, provides for respect for freedom of expression rights. Subjecting the messages of presidential hopefuls to vetting before publication amounts to censorship, which is inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by the Rwandan constitution and other regional frameworks ratified by Rwanda.

While condemning the decision by the EC to vet and approve campaign messages of presidential candidates before they are published, AFEX commends RURA for publicly defending the rights of citizens and reaffirming “the right of citizens to express themselves on social media and other ICT platforms, while respecting existing laws” as contained in eh RURA’s statement.

AFEX urges the National Electoral Commission of Rwanda to stick to their constitutional mandate of conducting free and fair elections. All issues related to the media (including the internet) and general expression should be done in consultation with RURA and other relevant stakeholders to ensure that the elections are conducted peacefully and successfully without compromising the rights of Rwandese to express themselves and actively participate in their own governance.