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Can censorship help heal Rwanda?

Just eighteen years after genocide, this tiny East African nation is an international success story. Just don’t mention ethnic groups or criticize the government.

The Heads of the State for The Boston Globe

KIGALI, Rwanda -- The architect’s model, sprawling across a table the size of a swimming pool, shows gleaming towers, highways, and monuments, even a river where none now exists. If Pierre L’Enfant, the designer of Washington, D.C., had come back to life in the 21st century, this might be what he produced: a global capital for a small nation that imagines itself quite large in the world — as the Switzerland-like banking center of the 120 million-person East African Community.

Just 18 years removed from one of the bloodiest atrocities in African history — the murders of 800,000 people, mostly members of the minority Tutsi tribe at the hands of rival Hutus — Rwanda seems to be doing everything right. Its economy is growing faster than almost any on the continent. Its public health improves every year.

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For American diplomats and aid workers who long despaired of ever seeing an African nation free of corruption, encouraging of women’s aspirations, and embracing of global financial norms, today’s Rwanda is a model for the continent and beyond. Its president, Paul Kagame, understands what so many African rulers do not: that a world of expertise awaits a leader who can engage with Western nations while protecting his own vision for the country. American diplomats and aid workers who have worked with Rwandan leaders are enthusiastic. “They’re great partners, very progressive, incredibly effective,” says Peter Drobac, a Brigham and Women’s Hospital physician who is the Rwandan country director for aid group Partners in Health.

Victoire Ingabire in November 2011, heading into the Rwandan High Court during her trial.

AFP/Getty Images

Victoire Ingabire in November 2011, heading into the Rwandan High Court during her trial.

However, another reality of today’s Rwanda is visible in a courthouse in central Kigali, where an opposition leader named Victoire Ingabire is on trial on multiple charges. The most problematic — including preaching a “genocide ideology” — stem from her declaration, after visiting the country’s genocide memorial, that it doesn’t properly acknowledge Hutu deaths along with the larger number of Tutsi victims.

This was an inflammatory sentiment, certainly — somewhat, though not entirely, akin to asking that German civilian casualties be accorded equal status to Holocaust victims. But it was simply a statement, nonetheless. And Ingabire could face up to 25 years in prison just for expressing it.

For American enthusiasts of the Kagame regime, the Ingabire case and others like it point to a dilemma: Rwanda’s remarkable reconciliation and success have gone hand in hand with severely curtailed freedom of speech. Though it leads Africa in many markers of development, Rwanda ranks among the least free countries for media, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Journalists operate in fear of prosecution for pointing to ethnic divisions, or even just for criticizing the government. Last year, Rwandan courts sentenced a newspaper editor to 17 years in prison for “disrespecting” Kagame by, among other things, depicting him with a swastika.

As much as these restrictions may disturb American diplomats, businesspeople, donors, and aid workers, Kagame and his supporters believe the country is succeeding not despite its deviation from the American playbook, but because of it. Rwanda’s “genocide ideology” is so toxic it can’t be rationalized, they believe; it must be buried like a corpse, consigned to memorials.

“If you have politics that concentrate on making people understand that they are different and they should be at each other because of their differences, instead of getting together in spite of their differences, that’s exactly where the problem starts,” Kagame declared in November, in an interview with journalists from the International Reporting Project.

Rwanda, then, presents a direct challenge to the idea that free speech is the best cure for traumatized nations. That principle — that differences should be aired, so that they can be overcome — is an article of faith in the United States, and this free “marketplace of ideas” is what we prescribe for sub-Saharan Africa as well as Iraq, Libya, Burma, and other hot spots. But much of global history points to a different narrative, one of heated political speech leading to conflict, war, and sometimes even genocide.

Discerning the proper limits of free speech in other cultures is crucial for the United States, which has such a great stake in supporting fledgling democracies. But how much of America’s own experience is transferable? In Africa, Europe, and Asia, there is far less agreement on the inherent virtues of free expression. What is happening in Rwanda can be seen as a kind of test case for an alternative theory: that some ideas are simply too dangerous to go to market.

***

Skulls of genocide victims at the memorial at the Nyamata church.

AFP/Getty Images

Skulls of genocide victims at the memorial at the Nyamata church.

RWANDA IS A TINY, land-locked piece of East Africa, about 1,000 miles from the Indian Ocean. It is the “land of a thousand hills,” with fertile bogs and palm trees, like a slice of volcanic island laid out on the African tundra. About the size of Massachusetts, it has twice as many people, ranking it among the most densely populated countries on earth.

In many ways, though, it’s a country built on skulls. So many people were killed so quickly in the three months following the assassination of its then-president in April 1994, that pieces of their bodies became part of the Rwandan landscape.

The remains of 45,000 corpses, most of them hacked by machetes, rest in the bowels of the Nyamata Church, about 20 miles from the Rwanda capital of Kigali. Built cheaply of brick, the church was a place of worship for Catholics, mostly of the then-dominant Hutu tribe. In 1992, it was a place of refuge for Tutsis threatened by Hutu Power guerrillas; local Hutus wouldn’t tolerate killings at their church. At the time of the genocide, just two years later, many thousands of Tutsis holed up in and around the church, only to have the gates opened to the murderers.

Today, the wooden pews are stacked with the rotting clothes of those who died, their bright colors faded to brown and gray. Across the cement floor is a simple statue of the Virgin Mary. At the altar table, under the questioning eyes of the Virgin, is a single machete. Directly underneath, in the basement, are rows and rows of skulls, and shelves lined with white bones.

Those who died in the genocide, at least 10 percent of the country’s population at the time, weren’t the only victims. Tutsi women and the Hutu brides of Tutsi men were systematically raped by Hutu neighbors. Many became pregnant, and they and their 17-year-old children are part of the tangled web of Rwandan victimization and guilt. The divide between victims and oppressors is complicated in other ways, too; the United Nations has pointed to atrocities committed by Tutsi guerrillas against Hutus who fled into Congo.

Once order was restored, top leaders of the provisional government were brought before an international tribunal. Some, including self-styled “journalists” who took to the radio airwaves to spread hatred of Tutsis, are in international jails. But a huge number of Rwandans participated in the genocide, and aren’t facing prison; there are simply too many of them. Instead, villages have held trials and have sent those found guilty to work programs, mainly in Kigali. There, they can be seen sweeping parks and building roads, wearing blue jumpsuits and impassive faces.

They, along with the rest of Rwanda’s citizens, are constrained by speech laws. Among the offenses punishable with long terms in prison are not only advancing a “genocide ideology,” but also “divisionism” and showing disrespect for the president. In practice, any mention of Hutu and Tutsi political differences, or accounts of the genocide that differ from the official version, are risks for prosecution.

So far, this repressive code has served to buy the country time to heal its divisions, in Kagame’s view. Eventually, he believes, continued development will allow for a loosening of restrictions on speech.

“It’s something that people probably have to be patient about,” Kagame explained in his interview with the International Reporting Project, in his dulcet tones.

***

THE PRESIDENT’S BESPECTACLED face, peaceful in its cerebral confidence, stares down from the walls of government buildings and luxury hotels. At 54, he does not look like a military man, though he has spent most of his life in service of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the army of Tutsi exiles that tried to invade Rwanda in the early ’90s, and then swept to power with international help in July, 1994, ending the genocide.

Though Tutsis and Hutus are often indistinguishable, Kagame’s ultra-slender physique and straight nose mark him clearly as a Tutsi, one of thousands whose families fled Rwanda for Uganda in the ’50s and ’60s. These exiles, some educated in the West, are now the bulwark of Kagame’s government — the bright, professional ministers who are engaging the global community.

The administration’s goal, almost an obsessive one, is economic development. Its success can be measured in statistics: An average gross domestic product growth of about 7 percent over 10 years; child mortality rate cut in half in just five; the percentage of couples using birth control up from 10 percent to 45 percent; malarial infections cut in half; one of the lowest HIV infection rates in Africa — 3 percent — with 90 percent of patients receiving antiretroviral treatment.

Businesspeople who come to Kigali expecting a nation in the bare aftermath of turmoil are invariably impressed. There is not a trace of Hutu and Tutsi separation, nor of dissention of any kind. This is the intended result of the clampdown on free expression.

On the streets of Kigali and in smaller towns dotting the countryside, there are few outward signs of a police state. But the regime’s determination to stamp out tribal divisions is so well understood that people are loath to utter the words Hutu and Tutsi anywhere they might be overheard. “Talk crimes” — divisionism, preaching the genocide ideology, showing disrespect for the president — are so open-ended and aggressively enforced that people censor themselves, perhaps even beyond what Kagame and his aides intended. To an outsider, in fact, the most noticeable thing about Rwandan politics is that there doesn’t appear to be any.

***

THE IDEA THAT free speech and thriving civil societies go together is second nature to Americans. Free speech, especially in the political realm, is the closest thing to a secular religion in the United States. It’s widely regarded as the greatest protection in the Constitution.

It’s also a key facet of American foreign policy. “Rights must be more than the grudging consent of dictators,” declared President George W. Bush in his second inaugural address. “They are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed.’’ James Madison regarded free speech as a God-given right. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the most admired of American jurists, spoke of the need to provide “freedom for the thought that we hate.”

In fact, though, the United States is an outlier when it comes to free expression: Almost no other country offers the blanket of protection available through the First Amendment. Many European countries have prohibitions on various forms of hate speech, led by Germany, which seeks to stamp out anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant ideologies. For American foreign policy to place so much confidence in the marketplace of ideas does not sit well with everyone, particularly those who have witnessed the corrosive effects of hate speech.

Margaret H. Marshall, the retired chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, grew up in apartheid-era South Africa. What she saw there leads her to question whether all societies should follow the First Amendment model of unlimited free speech. That is an “anti-historical” belief, she says. In the United States, it has proven wise to protect even the most offensive views. But hateful speech has led to mass murder in other countries, from Nazi Germany to the killing fields of Cambodia to Rwandan radio broadcasts denouncing Tutsis.

In her view, nations seeking to move beyond genocide might be justified in restricting not only hate speech, but also some political expression, such as calls to overthrow the government and restore majority rule — which, in Rwanda’s case, would mean a possible return of extremist Hutu power.

“To say that all speech in all circumstances is always acceptable is inconsistent with human experience,” Marshall said in an interview. “You cannot say that the American version of free speech is correct for every society. We have much to learn from the experiences of other societies — not that I would change freedom of speech in the United States, but I would temper the view that all societies should always follow the American model.”

***

RWANDA’S REJECTION OF the American model matters because the country’s impressive advancement is gaining notice. A crackdown on corruption has spurred international investment. Thousands of Congolese carry their earnings across the border to secure them in reliable banks. To the north, south, and east, Rwanda has cultivated close ties to Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, and Uganda. It’s this larger East African Community on which Kagame pins his fondest hopes.

His dream is vivid in the plans for an emerald city of Kigali. It’s vivid in the $635 million international airport he’s building, and the $4.7 billion rail line connecting Kigali to cities in Tanzania and Burundi. It’s vivid in the convention center, industrial park, and wholesale food market the Rwanda Development Board is shopping to global investors.

It’s also vivid in the work ethic of the people. Rwanda functions more like an Asian country than a typical African one: Meetings start on time, university students are crisply focused on professional development, and local officials interact confidently with those from the international aid community.

And yet what’s happening underneath is unknowable. Where exactly does hatred go? Can it be removed, as if by an eraser scrubbing it over, through successive development triumphs? Or must it be aired, expressed, and rejected in a theater of debate?

The answer lies somewhere behind those impassive stares of the men in blue jumpsuits, so industriously clearing the way for the new Kigali. Today, it is illegal for them to say what they think. But their answer will eventually become known.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe’s editorial page editor. He traveled to Rwanda with the International Reporting Project.
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