Authoritarian regimes have long had a complicated relationship with media and communications technologies. The Unfreedom Monitor is a Global Voices Advox research initiative examining the growing phenomenon of networked or digital authoritarianism. This extract is of the executive summary of the report on Speech, from the series of reports to come out of the research under the Unfreedom Monitor. Read the full report here.
Freedom of expression is a fundamental precept of democracy, as this right allows citizens and the media to hold the state accountable and responsible for its actions in the governance of a country. Constraining free speech has been a key method to advance digital authoritarianism. The case study of Rwanda will reveal that the government uses a litany of repressive laws complemented by surveillance technology and state-led crackdowns to target voices of dissent. Most of the arrested voices of dissent who dare to question the status quo or challenge the state narrative about events leading up to the 1994 genocide face excruciating jail terms. In some cases, journalists and opposition party activists have been assassinated or have died under suspicious circumstances. This situation has generally led to a culture of self-censorship amongst citizens and a general sense of coercion and cooption into the state narrative.
The advent of digital surveillance technology in Rwanda and its use by the government for purposes of monitoring alternative voices has had a chilling effect on press freedom. Rwanda has been fingered as a key client of Israeli NSO spyware, Pegasus, which has been used to spy on political opponents of President Paul Kagame’s regime and in one particular case, to pry into the private communications of South African President Cyril
Ramaphosa. This is a claim that Kagame’s regime has vehemently denied. In October 2019, it was reported that a vulnerability in WhatsApp had been manipulated using Pegasus spyware to target Rwandan dissidents, among them a journalist and an opposition party member (Amnesty, 2021).
The right to privacy and data protection online is imperative mainly because of its close enabling role for the realisation of other rights such as freedom of speech, freedom to access information and freedom of association, among others. However, the use of surveillance technology by governments to target journalists and activists is inimical to democracy as targets of such surveillance cannot freely exercise their right to free expression in their line of work. This report examines the thematic area of speech under the Unfreedom Monitor, highlighting the range of state led threats and narratives to stifle such freedoms, using the Republic of Rwanda as a case study.
Read the full report here.