a contextual understanding of free expression

Yesterday I spoke with Jean-Pierre Karegeye, a native Rwandan who teaches African literature at Macalester college. He spends his summers in Kigali, Rwanda, doing research and running the Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies Center, which he co-founded with Brown University Professor Erik Ehn. I worked with Jean-Pierre and Erik in Kigali last summer, looking at how the arts are being utilized as as an instrument for reconciliation and healing. Jean-Pierre provided me with some useful feedback on my plans for this summer, and offered his own thoughts on the issue I seek to take up:  freedom of expression.

This summer, I'll be returning to Kigali to explore the state of freedom of expression in Rwanda, particularly in the realm of the arts. I'll be looking at the ways in which artists use various mediums to engage with the effects and memory of the genocide, as well as address pressing current issues.  The Rwandan state is frequently criticized by western media outlets for limiting free speech and engaging in censorship and repression of diverse opinions. The government, however, argues that that free speech means something entirely different in Rwanda, given its tragic history. Prior to 1994, radio, newspapers, and other media sources were entirely unrestricted. However, these sources were co-opted and instrumentalized to fuel and execute the genocide. Radio, in particular, was the primary medium through which anti-Tutsi ideology was spread and genocidal instructions were communicated. "Free speech" took on a twisted, horrific use during the genocide. Thus today, such freedoms must be redefined in an environment where national security and post-genocide reconstruction are of utmost importance.

I'm curious about how Rwandan state policies, and the still-raw post-genocide environment, affect the critical work of artists, as well as activists, journalists, and scholars. I'm also interested in how conceptions of freedom in Rwanda facilitate or hinder the ability to voice opinions and engage in dialogue that may be crucial to reconciliation and stability. To what extent are there tensions that need to be released, and do alternative spaces exist to release them? The topic is a sensitive one to probe; in interviews, I know I'll have to frame my questions carefully in order to create a space for open, candid conversation. I need to parse apart my own thoughts and opinions about these issues, and ask questions from a point of distance so as not to make assumptions that could offend or close off my interviewees. I can not assume a lack of free expression, nor can I assume that Rwandans feel their government suppresses divergent opinions or violates citizen rights. Jean-Pierre suggested that I bring up the issue by citing an external case or news story. For example, a recent New York Times article describes the case of two Rwandans in England who are outwardly critical of the Rwandan government. According to some documents acquired by British intelligence, the Rwandan government may be plotting to kill these two individuals. The Rwandan state denies these accusations. Bringing this case up, and then asking what people think of it, may be wiser than pointedly asking whether Rwandans lack the right to free speech.

As I go about my research, I want to remain critical, yet open. While it is easy to take up a hyper-critical and moralistic stance from a western vantage point, the realities on the ground can be quite different. Rights do not exist in isolation; countless other factors contribute to the ways they are understood and implemented. Having spent time in Rwanda, I know that the more I learn about the country, the more complex, multifaceted, and ungraspable it becomes. Probing freedom of expression will certainly produce obstacles, but I hope to allow these challenges to inform and guide rather than discourage.