The election body does not have the mandate to regulate social media use by presidential candidates, a measure seen as an assault on free speech, claimed Rwanda’s media regulator.

Last month, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) suggested that once the July 14 campaigns starts, any presidential candidates’ social media updates must be submitted to them for pre-approval.

On the other hand, the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA) which oversees the media, said in a statement that the NEC had “no mandate to regulate or interrupt the use of social media by citizens.”

“RURA as the statutory regulator has not had any discussions with NEC on this subject and would like to reaffirm the right of citizens to express themselves on social media … while respecting existing laws,” wrote spokesman Anthony Kulamba.

The ruling created a furor with opposition leaders seeing it as a bid to block criticism of President Paul Kagame while US ambassador Erica Barks-Ruggles said it was a “very, very serious limitation on the freedom of expression.”

The measure even raised eyebrows within government, with Foreign Minister Mr. Louise Mushikiwabo writing on Twitter that, “No offence to Rwanda NEC but Rwandans should express themselves freely on social media in election season.”

Since the end of the 1994 genocide in which around 800,000 mostly Tutsi people died, Rwanda has been praised for its stability and economic performance. However, it often comes under fire for a lack of political freedom.

Rwanda is constitutionally a multi-party system but there is practically no opposition within the country.

All recognized parties generally support the policy decisions made by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) with exception of the small Democratic Green Party which was the only one to object to 2015 constitution changes allowing Kagame to seek re-election.
Only four candidates have declared their intention to run against Kagame in the 4th August poll.