Rwanda has been accused of "unacceptable acts of harassment and intimidation" against the media after a hostile pro-government Twitter account using a fake name was traced to the president's office.
Paul Kagame's government last week deported Steve Terrill, a freelance journalist from the United States who exposed the scandal, in its latest attempt to crush freedom of expression at home and abroad, according to the pressure group Reporters without Borders.
The strange case began with Sonia Rolley, a Radio France Internationale journalist reporting on the deaths of Rwandan dissidents, who was bullied for months on Twitter by an account with the handle @RichardGoldston – apparently a reference to South African judge Richard Goldstone, the first United Nations prosecutor for Rwanda, though it had no connection to him.
During one bitter exchange Terrill intervened to demand that @RichardGoldston stop the "misogynistic harassment" of Rolley. A response then came not from @RichardGoldston but from Kagame's official Twitter account, which has 292 000 followers.
Observers seized on the apparent slip of the keyboard as evidence that the person responsible for the aggressive tweets was close to Kagame and acted with his blessing. As the controversy grew, the presidency was forced to admit in a tweet: "@RichardGoldston was an unauthorised account run by an employee in the presidency. It has been deleted and the staff member reprimanded."
Inside the president's office
According to Reporters without Borders, Terrill had emailed the president's office a few weeks earlier to say he had established that the offensive @RichardGoldston tweets were coming from inside the president's office, but he got no reply.
Then last weekend, as Terrill arrived in Kigali to report for Al Jazeera and the Christian Science Monitor on the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, he was refused entry at the airport. He was detained for several hours and was then put on a flight to Ethiopia. The government gave no reason for barring Terrill but tweeted an article about an old judicial case in which he was exonerated.
Reporters without Borders said that, since the controversy erupted, many journalists had been blocked by Kagame's official Twitter account. It condemned the government's "lack of transparency and its unacceptable acts of harassment and intimidation of journalists with the aim of suppressing freedom of information and independent reporting".
The group – which ranks Rwanda 162nd out of 180 countries in its press freedom index – said several Ugandan journalists who covered Rwanda-related stories had recently received threats from the Rwandan regime, in some cases through its security and intelligence services.
Clea Kahn-Sriber, head of the Africa desk at Reporters without Borders, said: "The Rwandan government often responds to charges of blocking information by portraying itself as the target of malicious international groups that secretly wage what it calls a Blame Rwanda campaign.
"President Kagame needs to understand that people can use legitimate arguments to criticise his government without questioning the very foundations of the Rwandan state. How will his country be able to rebuild its social fabric when raising even slightly sensitive subjects are forbidden?"
@RichardGoldston, which trolled critics of Kagame including Human Rights Watch, is far from the only Twitter account to have attacked journalists in what many suspect is a concerted campaign.
In an article on the Daily Maverick website, journalist Simon Allison wrote: "With a few unfortunate clicks, @RichardGoldston lifted the facade on this operation – and gave us an unprecedented insight into the heart of the presidency itself.
"The opinions and emotions expressed there certainly aren't diplomatic but the world according to Kagame's troll reveals more about Rwanda than a dozen carefully worded press releases ever could." – © Guardian News & Media 2014