Rwandan President Fights a Critical Journalist on Twitter

Ian Birrell tweeted about the Rwandan president, not expecting him to respond

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Players: British Journalist Ian Birrell; Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda.

Opening Serve: Birrell commented on a Financial Times interview with the Rwandan President in which Kagame said, "I don't think anybody out there in the media, UN, human rights organizations, has any moral right whatsoever to level any accusations against me or Rwanda. Because when it came to the problems facing Rwanda, and the Congo, they were all useless." Birrell referred to this comment on Twitter, calling Kagame "despotic & deluded."

Return Volley: To Birrell's surprise, the Rwandan leader actually responded to his tweet, exclaiming via his own Twitter feed, "Not you moral right! You give yourself the right to abuse pple and judge them like you r the one to decide...and determine universally what's right or wrong and what shd be believed or not!!! Wrong u r...u have no such right.." Kagame continued, insisting, "Ask Rwandans they will tell u I am not what u call me and I am sure they r not what you think they are...!", that "You have no basis for your comments and you don't kno what you r talking about me or Rw. I will only hold all that in contempt!" and "Africa-Rw- will need Africans to work in the lead n in concert with others globally who r genuine to put things right...not the likes of you who just pretend...!"

Birrell pushed back. "Fail to see why you think I have no moral right to offer criticism and opinions. Pls explain further," he wrote. To which Kagame replied: "You did not offer any explanation yourself why you would refer to me as despotic n deluded...did you just want pple to believe it?" And round and round the conversation went, with Birrell continuing to press Kagame on why he doesn't deserve an opinion on his leadership, pointing out the Rwandan government's poor human rights record and its punishment of the press and other critics, and Kagame simply insisting that Birrell's comments were untrue, unwarranted and insulting.

Several people tossed in their own input throughout the duration of the spat, including Rwanda's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Louise Mushikiwabo. She tweeted at Birrell, "wld u care 2 know what 11.000.000 Rwandans think if Paul Kagame b4 u spread ur formed opinion? 2 big a callenge 4 u?" Birrell replied, "Had [we're guessing he means 'hard'] to gauge opinions of Rwandans when govt clamps down on media, closes papers and silences opponents." Click here to see the whole fight.

What They Say the Fight's About: The fight takes off from Kagame's assertion that neither the press nor the international community has the right to judge what goes on in his country. Birrell demands that Kagame explain himself once he makes clear that he's not wavering on this statement.

What the Fight's Really About: This fight is noteworthy because, whether it was Kagame or a staffer pressing "enter," a head of state took to Twitter to challenge a foreign journalist's criticisms. Birrell himself writes, in a column at The Guardian, that "It is admirable to see a leader engaging so personally with new means of communication--although it is telling there is no one he thinks worth following." Kagame, however, did not take advantage of the opportunity before him to defend himself more articulately, instead offering Birrell the floor to undercut him with links to articles of his human rights and free press abuses.

Who's Winning Now: Tweeters from both sides of the spectrum contributed their two cents to this public debate, arguing that "Ian u hv no mandate 2 question @paulkagame. We, Rdans, r enjoying fruits of his leadership. Calling him names is disrespecting us" and asking Mushikiwabo "is it really professional to get into an argument with foreign journalists? you have degraded my country that is all." Each participant could be considered a winner in his own way. As Rwandan journalist Eleneus Akanga explains, Kagame fancies himself "Rwanda's saviour" for swooping in to lead the country after it was torn apart by genocide. So, his refusal to back down from his long-held position that he cannot be criticized, in his mind, probably gives him the win. Birrell could also be considered the winner, though, both because Kagame technically did not explicitly defend himself and, simply, for instigating this public debate in the first place. "In this new world [of Twitter-fueled journalism] I was able to draw attention to Kagame's original statement, he was able to respond and we could debate in real-time watched by thousands of people worldwide, scores joining in with links, opinions and comments," he writes.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.