President Paul Kagame surprised his own cabinet in December when he refused to sign a contentious media bill that prescribed the death penalty for journalists found guilty of inciting genocide.
Lawmakers passed the bill in September, citing the macabre role that certain Rwandan media outlets played in promoting and orchestrating the 1994 massacre of more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus by Hutu extremists. The bill also prescribed lifetime imprisonment for reporters convicted of stirring ethnic hatred, even in cases where mass slaughter does not ensue.
The bill also proposed that foreign reporters found guilty of inciting genocide be banned from Rwanda and that prosecutors be given the authority to compel journalists to reveal confidential sources. The bill was presented by a Legal Reform Commission mandated to review all existing laws as part of a general overhaul of the Rwandan political system prior to national elections scheduled for 2003.
Officials claimed the bill was intended to foster a professional and responsible media. But Rwandan journalists voiced shock and outrage at its content, complaining that the Ministry of Local Government and Social Affairs, which drafted the bill, did not properly consult with them.
Although he had originally supported the bill, President Kagame ultimately changed his position, arguing that Rwanda needed genocide laws that addressed the roots of the problem.
Long ruled by Hutu or Tutsi leaders whose cabinets were packed with relatives and whose ideologies were firmly rooted in ethnicity, Rwanda has since July 1994 been under a unity government made up of five parties. Real power is firmly in Tutsi hands, however.
In March, the ruling coalition won by a landslide in municipal elections. Half of Rwanda’s 8 million people cast ballots, a turnout President Kagamé hailed as a “significant step for democratization.” Independent journalists were more reserved in their assessments. Many said the ruling coalition’s overwhelming victory mirrored at best the government’s unwillingness to open the political arena to opposition voices.
In February, the government suspended two Hutu-dominated parties for allegedly “organizing and participating” in the 1994 genocide. In June, authorities banned former president Pasteur Bizimungu’s Democratic Party for Renewal (PDR) just days after its official launch.
The Kagame government claimed the PDR was bent on “destabilizing the country.” That argument prompted contentious public debate, which in turn brought restrictions on the press. On December 31, for example, police arrested Amiel Nkuliza, a reporter for the newspaper Le Partisan who had questioned the circumstances surrounding the December 26 murder of Gratien Munyarubuga, a PDR co-founder. Nkuliza was released on January 3 without charges.
All year long, Rwandan officials bullied state media and harassed independent journalists who accused them of overstating the genocide issue for their own gains. In this intensely Catholic country, reporters also got in trouble for writing bluntly about religious matters, particularly in relation to the president.
In April, state television producer Gerard Mbanda was suspended without pay for airing footage of President Kagame being shown a passage in the Bible. CPJ sources said the footage could have been construed as suggesting that Kagame could not read the Bible without help.
Meanwhile, controversy mounted over the rights of detainees at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), a U.N. court sitting in Tanzania that prosecutes alleged perpetrators of the 1994 genocide. Passions flared after an ICTR security team searched the cell of Hassan Ngeze, former editor of the defunct extremist Hutu paper Kangura, and seized materials that Ngeze had posted on an unauthorized Web site devoted to his defense. Ngeze claimed that “vital defense documents” were also taken from his cell, a charge the ICTR dismissed as baseless.
Ngeze is on trial for genocide and other crimes against humanity. He is alleged to have fueled the mass killings with virulent editorials and articles in Kangura. Ferdinand Nahimana, former director of Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), and Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, a founding member of RTLM, are being tried on similar charges in what has become known as the ICTR’s “media trial.”
In early April, a witness testified that Faustin Rucogoza, Rwanda’s minister of information at the time of the genocide, had warned RTLM officials on at least two occasions against broadcasting material that could incite ethnic hatred.
The witness, identified only as “G.O.” for security reasons, said the first meeting took place in November 1993, and the second on February 10, 1994, when the genocide was in full swing. Testifying for the prosecution, Belgian journalist and Rwanda expert Colette Braeckmann said that former Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana had also expressed worries about RTLM’s broadcasts in November 1993.
Witness G.O., who monitored RTLM broadcasts for the state, testified that the station blamed all of Rwanda’s woes on Tutsis and repeatedly aired the Ten Hutu Commandments, a set of edicts first published in Hassan Ngeze’s Kangura that banned all social interaction between Hutus and Tutsis. After the Commandments were read on RTLM, Hutu men started murdering their Tutsi wives, and children from mixed marriages bludgeoned their Tutsi mothers to death, G.O. said.
RTLM’s ghoulish role in Rwandan history has not deterred authorities from seeking to encourage the development of local broadcasting. In June, the semi-official New Times reported that the government might license more private radio stations. Also in June, the government granted the Voice of America a license to broadcast on the FM band in the capital, Kigali.
Gerard Mbanda, ORINFOR
Mbanda, a veteran television news producer for the state-operated Office de l’Information du Rwanda (ORINFOR) media network, was suspended for two weeks without pay for airing images of a profusely perspiring President Paul Kagame.
Sources in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, speculated that the suspension may also have been related to broadcast footage in which Kagame was being shown a passage in the Bible. They said that in heavily Catholic Rwanda, those images could have been construed as suggesting that Kagame was incapable of reading the Bible without help.
ORINFOR runs all publicly funded news operations in the country, including Radio Rwanda, one television station, and two newspapers.
Amiel Nkuliza, Le Partisan
Police detained Nkuliza, a journalist with Le Partisan newspaper, and questioned him about his reporting on the murder of Gratien Munyarubuga, a founder of the opposition Democratic Party for Renewal-Ubuyanja, and his stories about the Democratic Republican Movement party. He was released on January 3, 2002.