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Rwandan government expands stranglehold on privacy and free expression

(Privacy International/IFEX) - 25 August 2012 - Last week the Rwandan government tightened its grip on citizens when the parliament's lower house adopted legislation that sanctions the widespread monitoring of email and telephone communications. The bill is now awaiting Senate approval.

The law, an amendement to the 2008 Law Relating to the Interception of Communications, will empower the police, army and intelligence services to listen to and read private communications, both online and offline, in order to protect "public security", that all-encompassing indemnifier too often invoked to justify unnecessary infringements of human rights. In the name of "public security" Rwandan police and security forces will be able to spy on journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers and activists who criticise or oppose the Kagame regime. If someone has been identified as having visited "subversive" websites - including those of opposition political parties like the exiled Rwanda National Congress - they may face tough prison sentences.

Under the amended law, all communication service providers (CSPs) will be required to implement the technical capability to enable communications interception upon request. The Rwandan government will purchase the necessary technology and equipment for the CSPs, giving government agencies direct control over all communications nationwide. One report notes that this technology will include the use of 'keyword' scanning, in which mass surveillance of communications is undertaken in order to identify who is talking about specific issues.

In effect, the legislation will subordinate the right to privacy to poorly defined concerns of "public security". While the Rwandan government points to the adoption of similar legislation in other Commonwealth countries, the employment of mass surveillance and censorship powers in a country that still lacks fully democratic institutions and strong judicial safeguards endangers individual rights and freedoms. In order to justify restrictions on rights such as privacy or free expression, governments must show that such restrictions are necessary to and proportionate in achieving their aim, and that they are subject to legal safeguards and oversight. Unfortunately, such safeguards seem to be either ineffective or non-existent in Rwanda, a country in which there is significant government control of political life and public discourse.

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