Attacks on the Press 2002: Rwanda

Although Rwandan president Paul Kagame has been in power for nine years, in July, he canceled elections scheduled for 2003 because his government remains “in a transition phase.” Despite almost a decade of rule, the Kagame administration has yet to draft a constitution that safeguards even basic freedoms.

As a result, journalists have few legal options when the government cracks down on the media. For example, media outlets have encountered stern retribution for covering Kagame’s ongoing political fight with his one-time friend and ally former president Pasteur Bizimungu, who has been in jail since 1999 for “forming an ethnic-based political party.” In late January, officials in the town of Butare arrested Laurien Ntezimana and Didace Muremangingo, director and editor, respectively, of Ubuntu, a publication of the civil-society group Association Modeste et Innocente. The two men were questioned over Ubuntu‘s suspected sympathies for Bizimungu and then released without charge.

The government maintains that the party Bizimungu attempted to create could have revived ethic hatred in Rwanda, where extremists from the majority Hutu tribe massacred almost 800,000 minority Tutsis in 1994. Hundreds of moderate Hutus were also slain during the genocide, which was supported and encouraged by the private Radio Télé des Mille Collines (RTLM) and the newspaper Kangura, among others. Hassan Ngeze, Kangura‘s founding editor, is now on trial at a U.N. tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, for his role in the slaughter. Also on trial are former RTLM director Ferdinand Nahimana and Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, one of RTLM’s founders. According to CPJ research, a total of 15 Rwandan journalists were killed during the genocide. It is unclear when the court will announce verdicts in the case, which has become known as the “media trial.”

In June, the Rwandan Parliament passed a bill that, if approved by the Supreme Court and signed by President Kagame, will introduce greater media freedom by allowing private radio and television stations and news agencies to operate. The bill also creates a media council, staffed with members of the private press and government appointees, to establish and monitor a code of ethics for journalists.

In France, meanwhile, a court dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed by Kagame against Paris-based African journalist Charles Onana. His book, Les Secrets Du Génocide Rwandais–Enquête Sur Les Mystères D’un Président (The Secrets of the Rwandan Genocide–Investigation of the Mysteries of a President), charged that Kagame’s ruling party, Le Front Patriotique Rwandais (Rwandan Patriotic Front), then a Tutsi guerrilla group, was responsible for shooting down the plane carrying the late Rwandan Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira. That incident is widely believed to have triggered the 1994 genocide. Onana said his book “de-robes Kagame of the mask” he has been using to cover his involvement in the massacre.

January 26

Laurien Ntezimana, Ubuntu
Didace Muremangingo, Ubuntu

Ntezimana, publisher of the newsletter Ubuntu, and Muremangingo, editor-in-chief of the publication, were arrested on January 26 and 27, respectively, in the southern province of Butare and transferred to Butare Central Prison. Local judicial authorities said arrest warrants were issued over a matter related to their work but refused to elaborate.

However, CPJ sources said that Ntezimana has reportedly been questioned in the past about using the word ubuyanja in several articles. The word, which means “rebirth of strength” in Kinyarwanda, one of the country’s official languages, also appears in the name of an outlawed political party founded by former Rwandan president Pasteur Bizimungu. The case was dropped on February 20 due to lack of evidence, and the two were released the following day.

July 23

Robert Sebufirira, Umuseso
Elly MacDowell Kalisa, Umuseso
Emmanuel Munyaneza, Umuseso

Sebufirira, Kalisa, and Munyaneza, all journalists with the independent weekly Umuseso, were sentenced to 30 days of “preventative detention” by a court in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.

The charges stemmed from a July 17 incident that took place at Bar Addis Ethiopian in the Kiyovu District of Kigali. Sebufirira, Kalisa, and Munyaneza arrived at the establishment after work and found a crowd gathered outside. When they went to investigate, they learned that the proprietor of the bar had called the police to deal with a rowdy patron who then attempted to resist arrest once the police arrived.

The patron identified himself as a member of the military and claimed that civilian police did not have the authority to arrest him. A fistfight ensued between the police and the patron, and some of the bystanders reportedly started shouting at the journalists to take note of the police and the soldier’s conduct and make sure to report it in the newspaper.

The military police arrived soon after and promptly arrested the journalists, as well as the patron who had earlier fought the civilian police. The journalists were taken into custody and charged with assault, battery, and insulting a police officer.

Several eyewitnesses indicated that the journalists were not involved in any physical confrontation. Rather, they were simply observers. As Rwanda’s only independent, Kinyarwanda-language publication, Umuseso has consistently criticized President Paul Kagame’s administration and has written extensively about police misconduct.

The three journalists were released on August 7, on the condition that they remain in Kigali and report regularly to the police. However, it is unclear whether the charges against them have been dropped.