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Steve Terrill is a journalist who works in Rwanda. Or at least he worked in Rwanda, until he accidentally got the office of Rwanda's president Paul Kagame to implicate itself in a long-running online harassment campaign. Alex talks to Steve about inadvertently exposing the Rwandan government's most prolific troll, and being banned from the country as a result.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Six years ago, before one single tweet got Steve Terrill banned from Rwanda for life, he was just your average westerner volunteering in Kigali
STEVE TERRILL: As I was teaching English at a non governmental organization there, some students there brought to my attention a problem where they were having their funds, their money was being stolen by some people, and I brought the story to a couple newspapers and said why don’t you write this, and they said “why don’t you write it?”
ALEX GOLDMAN: So he did. Before long, Steve transitioned from volunteer work to journalism. In 2010, he started a blog about the country’s elections. And from there, he basically just fell ass first into doing writing and photography for AFP, Radio France International, The LA Times and a bunch of other outlets. One surprising about covering Rwanda is Rwanda’s President, Paul Kagame. On the one hand, Kagame’s notoriously anti-press -- the Committee to Protect Journalists said that the nicest thing they could tell me about him is that he hasn’t arrested any journalists this year. At the same time, Kagame uses the internet with a frequency and uninhibitedness that’s unusual for a fifty-six year old President.
STEVE TERRILL: He's definitely the most accessible head of state vis-a-vis twitter. And he's gotten into arguments with journalists. He's said some things maybe he shouldn't have said, and made some important statements on twitter. Mia Farrow tweeted something to him at one point about maybe he shouldn't be supporting rebels in the Congo and he wrote back something really angry like "oh maybe you should just stick to things you know about, mind your own business, you don't know what you 're talking about."
ALEX GOLDMAN: In fact, the entire Rwandan state is very interested in who says what on social media. Both the government and military employ armies of trolls, a la Russia, to go after their critics.
LAURA SEAY: So, almost as long as I've been on twitter I've been harassed by Rwandan government accounts.
ALEX GOLDMAN: This is Laura Seay, an assistant professor of government at Colby College, who tweets a lot about East Africa.
ALEX GOLDMAN: You've been harassed by dozens and dozens of accounts, or, or, could you...
LAURA SEAY: I would say hundreds.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Hundreds of accounts?
LAURA SEAY: Yeah. Yeah. They definitely follow a pattern, I mean it was clear to me that if it wasn't one person then there was certainly like a central point of direction about "here's what you need to tweet on a given day at people." I remember one day I got several tweets from, from different accounts that all called me “a white lady know all," meaning “know-it-all,” but it was in that very specific language. And they all said it exactly the same way. White lady know all.
ALEX GOLDMAN: For foreign writers, dealing with these trolls is mostly just an inconvenience -- particularly compared to the very real threats of violence or death that local journalists face. You just learn to ignore the trolls. For the most part.
STEVE TERRILL: But once in a while, one really sticks out. One is just special. One is just *mwah!* It’s just that perfect cisson of being offensive and relevant all at the same time, and that’s what this Richard Goldston was.
ALEX GOLDMAN: The troll Steve couldn’t stop paying attention to was a twitter user named “Richard Goldston.” Like a lot of people who tweet anonymously about politics, Richard Goldston was an asshole. The kind of person who would refer to South African President Jacob Zuma as simply, a “black retard,” or suggest that the Congo ought to be sold to private developers. But anonymous assholes with strong political opinions are not unusual online. What made Richard Goldston stand out was that he seemed surprisingly close to the Kagame government.
STEVE TERRILL: Among his followers more than 40 of the top government offices in Rwanda. The minister of defense, the minister of foreign affairs.The President’s office. And it was like, "wait a second why are all these people following this guy?" In January I decided to write to the president's office and just ask them, just give them a chance, say "do, do you know anything about this?"
ALEX GOLDMAN: Kagame’s communications director, Yolande Makolo, got back to him, saying:
STEVE TERRILL: “don't be crazy, like who knows who anyone is in the twitter world? And how could we possibly know? And you can’t really seriously be indicting us just for following someone. I mean who knows who we're following? Anyone could be anyone." And for a minute, I was thinking "wow. Maybe I am crazy, maybe this is just some guy.” And then about a week later I was using topsy, which is a twitter analytics tool, and I found some very early tweets by this guy, where he was arranging interviews for the president.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Quote “please send your queries to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be able to assist.” That email address belongs to Hassan Ntiyamira, a media analyst in the President’s office. A guy Steve personally -- someone who he’d had drinks with in the past. So in January, Steve fired a warning shot: he told the president’s office he knew Goldston’s real identity, and that they should consider a policy that people only tweet under their real names. For six or seven weeks, it worked. The tweets stopped.
STEVE TERILL: And the one day he started again.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Richard Goldston returned in the beginning of March. He accused a reporter named Sonia Rolley of having had an affair with one of her sources, a Kagame opponent named Patrick Karegeya. Karegaya had been murdered just a few months before, in a South African hotel room. Most people suspected the Kagame government. To accuse Sonia of sleeping with him was a particularly ugly insult.
STEVE TERRILL: And I just chirped in quickly, I said "please don't start the misogynistic harassment again." And he wrote back, he said, "well what's it to you?" and I realized maybe he doesn't think I really know who he is. I said “would you like me to call you? I can call you, or I can email you.” And then a tweet came from the president's account, president kagame's official twitter account, and it said "go ahead hero, I don't hear my phone ringing. I don't see no emails."
ALEX GOLDMAN: The President of Rwanda was taunting Steve on the Internet.
STEVE TERRILL: I was stunned. I thought “the president’s tweeting to me and he’s defending this guy. Or it was the President the whole time.” But then I figured out that no, it’s this guy who works in the president’s office, who has access to the president’s twitter account, who was angry.
This part of the story is nauseatingly familiar to anyone who’s ever managed both their own social media account and their employer’s. Hassan composed a tweet meant for Goldston, and then accidentally sent it not as Goldston, but as the President of Rwanda.
STEVE TERRILL: It was an “own goal” moment, someone called it.
ALEX GOLDMAN: The fallout was swift - The Goldston account was deleted. The president’s office released a statement saying that the employee responsible had been reprimanded.
STEVE TERRILL: And the president really went to great lengths to make sure no one could ask him did he know about it. He, this is a guy that would tweet a dozen times a day, and after this he stopped, completely stopped tweeting. Quarter million followers, and his way of communicating with people. And he shut down, and I was sad about that, because I admired him for his twitter presence.
Steve didn’t set out to expose Richard Goldston. Remember, he was actually trying to protect the president’s office by deliberately not releasing this information. He was just trying to step in and defend a colleague, and Ntiyamira exposed himself. Which makes what happened next seem a little nuts.
STEVE TERRILL: Kagame's tweet to me was on march 2nd, and I was scheduled to arrive in Rwanda on march 15th, reporting for Al-jazeera, christian science monitor, USA Today, and the Toronto Globe and Mail. And I had two week, three week reporting trip scheduled with photographers and videographers and, I was blocked from entering the country when I landed.
ALEX GOLDMAN: He wasn't given any explanation for his ejection at the airport. Later the Rwandan immigration twitter feed said he was denied entry due to a 2012 drug arrest in the US. The ban appears permanent. It’s not just that Steve’s professional life as a freelancer in Rwanda is over. He reported there for six years. Most of his close friends live there. His fiance is Rwandan, she still lives there. Looking back on it, Steve regrets getting involved.
STEVE TERRILL If i had it to do again, I would have let it go. I would have backed off. What happened was the person running this account made a mistake. And I helped, I thikn I helped to push them to be in an uptight situation where they would make a mistake. And on some level, maybe I knew that. And I wish I hadn’t done that now, because then this wouldn’t have been revealed and I could come and go from the country and my life would be - mine and many other peoples lives would just continue normally.
ALEX GOLDMAN: It’s tough, it feels like you have exposed this great redounded really negatively for you.
STEVE TERRILL: I’m not even sure it’s a great misdeed. I mean, it’s like the kid teasing another kid on the back of the school bus. I mean, how bad is it, right? I think the people who were exposed took it more serious than anyone else. Some people are just really sensitive. They’re very image conscious.
ALEX GOLDMAN: The sound you’re hearing right now is one of the dozens of calls I made to the president’s office in Rwanda. In spite of these calls, emails and tweets to the president’s office, I never got any reply. Meanwhile, besides Steve’s exile, not much in Rwanda has changed. Kagame is now tweeting again, albeit more cautiously. Steve and Laura both say the other online trolls never really stopped. Ntiyamira still works in the President’s office. And the story of Kagame’s Twitter shenanignas didn’t even get much attention in the region.
STEVE TERRILL: this story was picked up by the BBC, the Washington Post, the Guardian and now by TLDR, and but was never discussed by any media outlet inside Rwanda or even in East Africa, because the fact is that media outlets in East Africa do not discuss matters that might be offensive or embarrassing to the president of Rwanda.
ALEX GOLDMAN: In the end, Kagame dealt with Steve the way you’re supposed to deal with anyone who annoys you on the internet. He blocked him. Except, because Kagame’s a head of state, he was able to block him in real life.
STEVE TERRILL: And here's the irony. I get a lot of flak from other journalists because I actually like Paul Kagame. There’s a lot of things about him I respect and admire. Most journalists who report on him objectively would say I'm too soft on him. And this is, this is the irony is that, they've blocked someone who was actually a supporter. I’ve been blocked from the country and I put in an application for a visa and you're supposed to get an answer back in 72 hours, and it's been 150 days and no answer, so.
ALEX GOLDMAN: On the scale of reporting bombshells it seems like, it seems from an outsider that this wouldn't warrant this kind of retribution, and it must be so devastating to you not to be able to get in.
STEVE TERRILL: Well, journalists, journalists are imprisoned in Rwanda for their writing. Journalists are killed in Rwanda, shot in the streets. Journalists flee to other countries and then are shot in the streets in Uganda, Rwandan journalists are. People who report things that the Rwanda government doesn't like get attacked. It's always been thought that a foreign journalist would be able to get away with a little bit more. They won't kill a foreign journalist, but they'll just block him from entering the country. And I have to say that the moment I saw that tweet from the president saying "go ahead hero, I don't hear my phone ringing," the moment I saw that I thought "oh, man, I'm not getting into the country.” Because you just don't get an angry tweet from Paul Kagame and then get into the country.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Like anybody who’s ended up on the bad side of a capricious moderator, Steve can only do two things now. Wait, and hope.
ALEX GOLDMAN: TLDR is hosted and produced PJ Vogt, and me, Alex Goldman. Our executive producer is Kat Rogers, our engineer is Jen Munson. Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Our intern is Ethan Chiel. Special thanks to Tom Rhodes of The Committee to Protect Journalists. Steve Terrill has a website called Rwanda wire, which aggregates reporting about the country. You can find more TLDR at tldr.onthemedia.org. We tweet at agoldmund, pjvogt, and tldr, and we are TLDR.