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Geoffrey York

Rwandan President, journalist duel in Twittersphere Add to ...

He might be the President of an African nation, but Paul Kagame has enough time to patrol the back corridors of the Twittersphere, alert for disparaging comments.

Mr. Kagame, the president of Rwanda and an enthusiastic tweeter from his BlackBerry, was outraged when he discovered that a British journalist had used Twitter to call him "despotic." For an hour, the two men tussled back and forth in 140 characters or less, jabbing at each other in furious tweets in an unprecedented battle between a head of state and a social media user.

The battle ended without any clear victor, but it illustrates the growing political impact of Twitter - and the extraordinary sensitivity of the Rwandan President, whose government has expelled human-rights researchers, imprisoned opposition leaders, shut down newspapers, and often chased its enemies beyond its borders.

The Twitter battle was fought with the space-saving slang and abbreviations that are common on text messages, punctuated by flurries of exclamation marks. "Wrong u r," the President typed at one point, adding: "u have no such right."

Mr. Kagame joined Twitter in 2009 and has tweeted more than 900 times since then, gathering more than 13,000 followers, although he follows nobody else. He also uses Facebook, has a Flickr account for his photos, and puts up podcasts on his website. Only 3 per cent of Rwandans have access to the Internet, so most of his activity is aimed at the Rwandan diaspora - a crucial battleground for Rwandan politics, since so many people fled the country after the 1994 genocide that killed an estimated 800,000 people.

The Twitter spat began with a tweet by British journalist Ian Birrell, former deputy editor of The Independent and a former speechwriter for British Prime Minister David Cameron. The journalist had just read a Financial Times interview with Mr. Kagame, in which the Rwandan leader insisted that nobody in the news media, the United Nations or any human-rights groups had "any moral right whatsoever" to criticize him, because they had been "useless" during the genocide.

Mr. Birrell tweeted that Mr. Kagame was "despotic and deluded." Soon afterward, Mr. Kagame fired back: "Not you either … no moral right! You give yourslf the right to abuse ppl and judge them like you r the one to decide." He added: "You have no basis for your comments and you dont kno what you r talking about me or Rw. I will only hold all that in contempt!"

Mr. Birrell responded by repeatedly asking why Mr. Kagame believed that nobody had the "moral right" to criticize him. The journalist said he knew people "living in fear of their lives" because they had dared to criticize the President.

Mr. Kagame's Foreign Minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, soon jumped into the Twitter feud, telling the journalist that Rwanda was a "no go zone" for "ethnic bigots and genocide ideologues." (Later she blocked access to her tweets.)

When the battle was over, Mr. Birrell called it "slightly surreal." He said he admired the President's willingness to debate a foreign critic, but found it ironic that Rwanda refuses to permit such debate by journalists and political rivals inside the country.

"The immediacy and intimacy of the President's responses offered a glimpse into his mind that might never have been exposed so starkly in more formal circumstances," Mr. Birrell wrote on Monday.

He said the Twitter battle revealed Mr. Kagame's thin skin, along with "his self-delusion, his evasiveness and, above all ,his belief - echoed by his foreign minister - that the supposed saviour of Rwanda is above criticism."

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