In 2012, Rwanda adopted a law that protects whistleblowers. The law was meant to enable people to make lawful disclosure of classified information on graft-related crime without retribution. It was seen as an important step in the fight against corruption in Rwanda and towards ridding the continent of a scourge that has stifled its development.

Recently, the Rwandan government made moves to strengthen the law with a Whistleblowers Protection Bill. It is arguing that the existing law does not sufficiently protect and reward whistleblowers. According to Evode Uwizeyimana, the Minister of State for Constitutional and Legal Affairs, the 2012 law had over 50 articles with loopholes that did not consider protection and rewarding whistleblowers, and it had to be changed. By making these changes to the law, Rwanda will become one of the first countries to offer ‘water-tight protection’ to whistleblowers.

The new Bill seeks to deal with threats of terror, insecurity, corruption and the concealing of information on issues of national interest. Whistleblowers inside and outside the country will not only be rewarded, but will receive full protection of their personal security and identity. This is a proactive piece of legislation that seeks to prevent rather than react to issues of corruption.

Read: Who will protect the whistleblower in Zimbabwe?

Protection under the law

One of the reasons that whistleblowing is a risky business is that many countries have laws that can result in the prosecution of those who give up sensitive information, particularly government information. In the US, under the administration of President Donald Trump, Reality Leigh Winner, a contract intelligence worker, has been arrested for leaking information concerning the interference of Russia in US elections. She is being charged under the country’s Espionage Act and could spend 10 years in prison. This is not the only arrest targeting whistleblowers in the country that has been recorded. President Trump has made threats against leakers of classified information and promised that they will be found and dealt with.

Donald Trump.
In the US, under the administration of President Donald Trump, Reality Leigh Winner, a contract intelligence worker, has been arrested for leaking information concerning the interference of Russia in US elections. Photo: Flickr

Many African countries, including Rwanda, also have secrecy laws. Rwanda’s Access to Information Law, which was passed in 2011, restricts access to any information that may compromise national security, and Zimbabwe’s Official Secrets Act makes it a criminal offence to disclose classified government information.

Rwanda should ensure that existing laws are not in conflict with its proposed Whistleblower Protection Bill.

Rwanda should ensure that existing laws are not in conflict with its proposed Whistleblower Protection Bill, as there is a thin line between whistleblowing and espionage. However, without sufficient protection under the law, a well-intended act of whistleblowing could result in the Good Samaritan citizen ending up in prison. For instance, the AIL provides exemptions for material of ‘public interest’, but Article 4 further restricts that information if it may ‘destabilise national security’. This opens it to arbitrary restrictions by the government.

Will the Whistleblowers Bill be effective?

It is unclear whether Rwanda’s new law will address these concerns and cushion whistleblowers against retribution. Concerns have also been raised about paying whistleblowers, with some lawmakers fearing that the practice may lead to those motivated by money offering false information. Edouard Bamporiki, a lawmaker, noted that the emphasis must not be on money but rather on patriotism, where citizens report wrongdoing as a national duty rather than a profit-making venture.

President Paul Kagame is known for attacking and even murdering former government officials who have spilled the beans on his government’s human rights record.

The Bill does not make a distinction between government and private sector whistleblowers. As a result, it is not clear if the amnesty will extend to those who disclose government excesses such as abuses of human rights. The government of President Paul Kagame is known for attacking and even murdering former government officials who have spilled the beans on his government’s human rights record. And it is unlikely to stop its crackdown against political opponents, as Kagame seeks to extend his stay in power.

It is unclear whether Rwanda’s new law will address these concerns and cushion whistleblowers against retribution.

Also, Kagame’s government is working like a lone wolf, without cooperating with other countries, particularly those where stolen funds are being taken. The new Bill must take its cue from the Commonwealth Africa Anti-Corruption Centre, which was established by the Commonwealth Secretariat in partnership with the government of Botswana and the Association of Anti-Corruption Agencies in Commonwealth Africa. The role of the centre is to provide ‘training and knowledge sharing across investigations, as well as public education and prevention of corruption, forensics, prosecution and asset-tracking’.

Ugandan anti-corruption sign. Corruption greatly undermines government effectiveness. Photo: futureatlas.com/Flickr/ www.futureatlas.com

A tool against the people?

On the face of it, the Whistleblower Bill seems like it is meant to protect the interests of whistleblowers, but upon critical analysis, one is tempted to think that this might be an attempt by President Kagame’s government to outsource spying to ordinary citizens. It is actually a law turning all citizens into government spies who will report anything and everything in the name of ‘national interest’.

Under this new law, citizens will gladly give up information against other citizens in the hope of being paid for it and having their identities protected. It is particularly worrying that the law extends to Rwandan citizens living outside the country.

Read: Is Nigeria’s whistleblower policy really working?

The term ‘concealing of information on matters of national interest’ is broad. After all, when what is ‘in the national interest’ is defined by government, it can easily label any action it wants as a ‘danger to national security’. This may be used by government to encroach on the civil liberties of ordinary citizens. The government of Rwanda has already been curtailing the freedoms of citizens in a bid to consolidate the power of President Paul Kagame by taking advantage of the country’s past history of conflict.

Rwanda’s whistleblowing law might seem progressive but it may come with side effects. There is a very real need for clarity on the full impact of the law before it becomes a tool that the government can use against citizens.