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The Tweet Is Coming From Inside the House: Rwanda's Twittergate

BY Jessica McKenzie | Tuesday, March 18 2014

Paul Kagame looking pensive (Matthew Jordaan / Wikipedia)

It began with a nasty tweet vilifying journalist Sonia Rolley, who covers Rwanda for Radio France International (RFI), from the account @RichardGoldston. A second journalist, Steve Terrill, stepped in to virtually defend Rolley from @RichardGoldston's malicious attacks. To their surprise, the response to Terrill came from the @PaulKagame, the verified account of the President of Rwanda. The slip was significant enough to earn the moniker “Rwanda's Twittergate.”

The Washington Post has a blow-by-blow account of the online kerfuffle and RFI's community manager Thomas Bourdeau pulled together a Storify [in French].

Terrill told the Post that he first thought Kagame himself had joined the spat. However, the incriminating tweet was deleted, and then @RichardGoldston's account disappeared. Terrill realized that it was possible that the person behind the @RichardGoldston account also had access to Kagame's official Twitter account, and had accidentally sent the tweet from the wrong account (an easy mistake to make in Tweetdeck and similar applications).

From previous digging into the @RichardGoldston, Terrill already suspected the account was held by someone from the Kagame administration: although clearly a fake account, perhaps referencing Richard Goldstone, the first United Nations Prosecutor for Rwanda, it was followed by a number of Rwandan officials, and once @RichardGoldston had asked a Twitter user to contact him at an official email address from the president's office.

The official account for the Presidency of Rwanda later tweeted: “@RichardGoldston was an unauthorized account run by an employee in the Presidency. It has been deleted and the staff member reprimanded.”

“Twitter trolls are two-a-penny, of course,” writes the Post's Adam Taylor, “and even if Kagame's Twitter ghostwriter is really behind the @RichardGoldston account it may look like an embarrassment rather than a scandal. However, the fact that the tweet that started this was a reference to Rolley's reporting on the death of Rwandan dissidents lends the situation a darker tone.”

Taylor is talking about dissident Patrick Karegeya, the former head of Rwandan intelligence and the founder of an opposition party, who was found strangled in a Johannesburg hotel room on January 1. The party Karegeya helped found, the Rwanda National Congress, has claimed his death was an assassination ordered by Kagame. Although Kagame has denied this, he has said “I actually wish Rwanda did it.”

It was Laura Seay's tweet praising Sonia Rolley's coverage of Karegeya and other dissidents' deaths that sparked the vitriolic exchange with @RichardGoldston.

Susan Thomson, Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Colgate University and the author of a book about post-genocide Rwanda, elaborates on the darker implications to which Taylor refers in a blog post for African Arguments.

She writes:

Rwanda’s Twitter-gate raises questions about the central role of RPF Twitter-trolls in calling out foreign journalists who seek to hold it to account for its excesses at home and abroad. President Kagame’s reactionary tweets provide insight into the political reality behind his government’s carefully crafted narrative that Rwanda is a nation rehabilitated from the ruin of the 1994 genocide. Twitter-gate is also illustrative of the harassment and intimidation which critics of the RPF regime regularly experience.

Twitter-gate is the first crack in the armor of the RPF’s longstanding disinformation campaign that has relied on exchange students, public relations firms, commemorative events, and a whole host of other techniques to craft an idealized and often invented version of what Rwanda was like before the onset of colonialism and what it has become since the 1994 genocide.

Thomson links to an old (August 2010) Guardian article about how Rwanda employed foreign PR firms to transform its public image. She suggests that Kwibuka20, a series of events meant to commemorate the 1994 genocide, and to “learn about “Rwanda's story of reconciliation and nation building,” is part of that extended PR campaign. (The crowdsourced but government-supported site Rwandapedia, which I wrote about in November, also smacks of elaborate PR.)

Although Paul Kagame has been breathlessly praised for his activity on Twitter, this is not the first time he (or his ghostwriter?) has gotten into spats with journalists on the platform.

In 2011, Kagame told the Financial Time's Africa editor “I don’t think anybody out there in the media, UN, human rights organisations [sic], has any moral right whatsoever to level any accusations against me or against Rwanda. Because, when it came to the problems facing Rwanda, and the Congo, they were all useless.”

Journalist Ian Birrell tweeted out the Financial Time's article, calling Kagame “despotic & deluded” for that particular comment. Kagame responded “@ianbirrell. Not you moral right! You give yourslf the right to abuse pple and judge them like you r the one to decide …”[sic]

In the end, they exchanged more than two dozen tweets. Birrell pressed Kagame to explain why he believes he is above reproach or criticism from the media and human rights groups, and eventually on his repression of the press in Rwanda. Kagame, for the most part, dodged Birrell's questions.

Three years after that exchange, it seems Kagame still doesn't like the media to criticize him or his country, but this time he (or an assistant) assumed the cloak of an anonymous Internet troll with which to carry out the worst of the online attacks on the press.

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