Freedom Press Wordcloud

"Journalism, like politics, is local."   This was Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo’s rationale for her government’s much criticized arrests and closures of opposition newspapers.   A variation of that theme was Prosecutor General Martin Ngoga’s explanation for the arrest of American law professor Peter Erlinder on genocide denial charges for his role in representing opposition candidate Victoire Ingabire against similar charges.

Rwanda, so they argued, has a very delicate social balance and the government must take measures that would not be acceptable in the West in order to ensure that the horrific genocide of 1994 is never repeated.

On its face, this is a powerful argument.  After all, different societies have different customs and needs.  And, surely, preventing massacres is worth trampling on some freedoms that aren’t particularly valued in a society a little further down Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs than ours.

But cultural relativism is a dangerous concept.   Where does one draw the line?

Ngoga noted that freedom of speech and the press aren’t absolute in the West, either.   Germany, Canada, and other very developed states have laws against genocide denial.  And, he pointed out, the United States Supreme Court recently upheld a law banning "material support" for foreign terrorist organizations, "even if the support is aimed at legal activities or peaceful settlement of disputes."

But it should be noted that such laws are highly controversial even in the West.  Former President Jimmy Carter, for one, has been highly critical of the material support law, saying it "inhibits the work of human rights and conflict resolution groups."

Furthermore, there’s little evidence that the laws are being used to stifle legitimate debate and political dissent in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe.   Alas, that’s decidedly not the case in Rwanda, where President Paul Kagame has not only been widely criticized by respected international organizations but actually charged with crimes in both Spain and France.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of extrajudicial killings and the U.S. State Department has cited the regime’s "disappearances" of dissents.

The Economist has contended that Kagame "allows less political space and press freedom at home than Robert Mugabe does in Zimbabwe" and "[a]nyone who poses the slightest political threat to the regime is dealt with ruthlessly."  Reporters Without Borders has Rwanda ranked 157 out of 175 countries in press freedom — and it’s on a downward slope.

Against that record, Mushikiwabo’s explanation that arrested journalists have violated the law is hardly reassuring. If dissent is against the law, enforcing the law is still repression.

Similarly, while one understands the desire to acknowledge the 1994 holocaust, if one can be charged with genocide denial for making the case that a particular person being charged with genocide denial isn’t actually denying genocide, then the crime in question becomes a not so subtle pretext for suppressing dissent.

So, yes, politics is local and so is the decision where to draw lines on competing principles. It has long been understood in the United States, for example, that freedom of speech does not include the right to falsely shout fire in a crowded theater or to engage in criminal conspiracies.  But the international community must demand that freedom of expression, including the right to dissent against the government in speech and in print, be regarded as universal rather than up to the whims of local governments.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.