Rwanda is laying the ground to impose restrictions on the use of social media, joining other East African countries in the muzzling of public expression.
Minister of ICT Paula Ingabire told parliament last week that the government has rolled out a programme to engage social media users on how to reduce and stop misinformation and defamation online before it “gets out of hand.”
“We look forward to protecting citizens more than anything else. That is the main reason why we need to regulate content posted on social media so that we create a safe space for all citizens,” she told parliament, adding, “We must think about how to safely regulate content on social media and how to ensure that such online platforms are exploited for the good of the nation and the people.”
If new social media regulations are imposed, they will become an addition to the already existing ICT law that prohibits the use of the internet to spread harmful content.
The law, enacted in 2016, prohibits sending messages or any other content that is grossly offensive, indecent or obscene by means of an electronic communications network, or cause such a message or matter to be sent.
The minister’s proposals are likely to be met with opposition by social media users and the country’s media fraternity, who believe that such restrictions undermine the freedom of expression.
“It is tricky for the government, since state agents are among the biggest spreaders of fake information across the world. While there is a need for discussion on how to regulate social media, it is important that free expression is not undermined,” said Gonza Muganwa, executive secretary of the Rwanda Journalists Association said.
“Some organisations have proposed the creation of social media councils that are independent, which is important if we are to avoid powerful actors from silencing critics,” said Mr Muganwa.
Private WhatsApp messages have been used before in court as evidence in criminal cases.
For example, WhatsApp messages were provided by the prosecutors as evidence in the case against government critic Diane Rwigara, for allegedly inciting the public against the government. The case was however thrown out by the high court on grounds of insufficient evidence.
In May 2017, the National Electoral Commission announced controversial regulations requiring presidential candidates in Rwanda to seek government approval for political campaign messages they planned to post online.
This was met with strong criticism by social media users and top politicians, who argued that the move was aimed at restricting free expression, which led the commission to reverse its decision.
The number of Internet users in Rwanda has increased by over one million, jumping from 4.37 million in June 2017 to 5.47 million in June 2018, according to the Rwanda Regulatory Agency.
Last year, Kenya passed the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act to stop hackers and the spread of fake news on the internet.
Under this law, publication of false news is punishable by a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
In Uganda, the communications regulator in 2017 banned media outlets from broadcasting live parliamentary debates on a constitutional amendment Bill, which sought to lift the presidential age limit.
Then in June 2018, the government imposed a “social media tax” of Ush200 (about $0.05) per daily usage of social media apps like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.