Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA) the entity mandated to regulate communications has come out to criticize a decision announced by the National Electoral Commission (NEC) on Monday that seeks to control social media posts made by Presidential candidates as the country heads to general elections in August.
The electoral body said that candidates would effective July 14 be required to submit draft social media material 48 hours earlier for approval before they are published.
“We are asking (candidates) to present us their messages, their drafts to verify that they are not against the law,” the electoral commission head Kalisa Mbanda told AFP on Monday. He said that any material that won’t be accepted by the NEC would not be posted.
However, the decision has met wide criticism from rights groups, diplomats and the opposition in Rwanda who think it is a deliberate move by government to clamp down on critics of ruling President Kagame who has ruled Rwanda for the last 14 years.
Reacting to the decision, Frank Habineza, leader of the opposition Democratic Green Party said; “It is unfair because we think social media should be something spontaneous so if someone wants to control it or to approve it first it is going to make our work very difficult.”
Rwanda’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Louise Mushikiwabo also condemned the move which she said goes against freedom of expression. She tweeted; “No offence to Rwanda NEC but Rwandans should express themselves freely on social media in election season. Our laws target abuse not voice!”
On Wednesday, in a twist of events, Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority which is legally mandated to regulate communications in the country issued a statement calling out the electoral commission for overstepping its mandate.
“Following the recent statement by NEC regarding handling of social media during elections in Rwanda, RURA would love to inform the general public that according to the ICT law and Media law, the National Electoral Commission has no mandate to regulate or interrupt the use of social media by citizens,” read the statement signed by Anthony Kulamba the RURA spokesperson.
The regulator denied holding prior discussions with NEC on the issue and reaffirmed the freedom of expression by citizens on the internet and other platforms as long as they respect existing laws.
It has become a common phenomenon for governments in Africa and across the globe to censor and sometimes shut down social media platforms during general elections in the interest on national security. However, there hasn’t been a case in the past where a country has gone as far as pre-approving social media posts.