Candidates in Rwanda’s August election have to seek approval from the electoral commission for each campaign message they craft, before posting it on social media platforms.
The National Electoral Commission (NEC) on Thursday said it had put in place a team of analysts to vet the requests.
“We have a media team that will receive messages and give feedback to the candidates. They will be charged with clearing the messages and telling the candidates that they can now send them on social media,” said Charles Munyaneza, NEC’s executive secretary.
The campaign posts requiring authorisation, include text, photographs and videos that aspirants wish to publish on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram or on their websites, said Mr Munyaneza.
“The candidates will have to send their messages to our team 24 hours before the time they expect to post them – and then they give us another 24 hours to give them feedback.”
Restriction or suppression?
Mr Munyaneza said that the team comprises four individuals, but it could expand depending on the need.
Critics view this move by the NEC as censorship and bent towards curtailing any message that could besmirch the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) party.
Frank Habineza, the flagbearer of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda (DGPR) – the only authorised opposition group – told The EastAfrican that his party would comply with the directive.
“We saw the instructions published on the official gazette. It is too late to change anything. We will comply,” he said.
A political analyst, who spoke to The EastAfrican on condition of anonymity, said the move could prevent candidates from expressing free speech and effectively criticising government policies.
“Independent candidates with little campaign money will probably need social media to get their message across. In the interest of fairness, citizens should be able to hear, read or watch uncensored messages from the candidates so that they make their own judgement,” the analyst said.
But Mr Munyaneza disagrees, saying the directive is a “necessary regulation when it comes to elections.”
“You have editors. Before you publish a news story, the editor must look at it first. So why shouldn’t we first look at the messages that people want to post on social media?” he posed to reporters who asked if the directive was not tantamount to censorship. “You can’t say that your editors censor you. It is the same for us; we just want to make sure that the messages posted on social media are not poisoning people.”
Should a candidate violate the instructions, they risk having their social media accounts blocked, said Prof Kalisa Mbada, the NEC president.
According to the head of the European Union delegation to Rwanda, Michael Ryan, the electoral commission had assured the bloc’s envoys – from Germany, UK, France and Belgium – during a meeting in late April that candidates, especially in the presidential race, would be free to campaign during the specified period.
“There was no mention of social media being off limits. Social media is a central part of modern communication, as valid as town hall meetings,” Mr Ryan told The EastAfrican.
Limited campaign posters
In the NEC directive, published in the government gazette, presidential candidates are also barred from displaying campaign posters in school premises, markets, bus parks, churches and hospitals.
All aspirants are also required to submit details and telephone contacts of their campaign team members.
No other individual will be authorised to engage in campaign duties on social media or any platform, apart from those on the list submitted to NEC.
So far, Mr Habineza, and independent candidates – Mr Gilbert Mwenedata, Ms Diane Rwigara and Mr Philippe Mpayimana, have expressed their interest to contest for the presidency.
Mr Mwenedata, this week, reported that he had been denied room by hotels in Kigali to hold his press conference to announce his plans.
President Paul Kagame has already declared intentions to seek a third term as the flagbearer for the RPF. The party is holding primaries, which began last week, and is expected to endorse Mr Kagame.
The Social Democratic Party, one of the opposition parties allied to RPF, said it would pick its presidential candidate in June.
According to the electoral commission, submission of application for presidential candidates will start on June 12 – 23. The final list of qualified candidates is scheduled to be published on July 7, a week before official campaigns kick off for a period of three weeks.
The Rwandan election will be held on August 4, with citizens in the diaspora voting a day before.
Rwanda is not alone.
The Kenyan government has said it will monitor social media platforms as the country nears the August 8 election.
A report by social enterprise, Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, said eastern Africa countries are among top violators of freedom of expression online with some ordering Internet shutdowns. Others, like Kenya, are accused of using punitive laws to intimidate citizens.
During Uganda's election in February last year, the government ordered the shutdown of popular social media platforms citing 'security concerns'. But political observers said the move was aimed at stifling media scrutiny of the elections as well as clamping down on freedom of expression.