The government of President Paul Kagame continued to suppress criticism and maintain a firm grip on the press in 2004. Although the 2003 elections were supposed to bring democracy to Rwanda, independent journalists continued to live in fear of harassment and imprisonment, and others were forced to flee after receiving death threats.
The Rwandan media still grapple with the role that some outlets, especially the notorious radio station RTLM, played in inciting the 1994 genocide, in which at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in less than three months; media outlets linked to Hutu political leaders, who organized the genocide, helped to fuel the climate of ethnic hatred and direct the slaughter. In December 2003, the U.N.’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, convicted three former Rwandan media directors of genocide and crimes against humanity.
A new constitution, adopted by referendum in 2003, guarantees press freedom “in conditions prescribed by the law.” But the law bars “any propaganda of ethnic, regional, racial or divisive character or based on any other form of divisionism.” Under a 2002 criminal law, public incitement to discrimination or divisionism is punishable by up to five years in prison, heavy fines, or both.
The current Tutsi-led regime, which consolidated power in the 2003 election, has increasingly used allegations of ethnic “divisionism” to silence critics. Such allegations have been used against Rwanda’s only independent newspaper, Umuseso (The Dawn), and against the Rwandan League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LIPRODHOR). Several members of these organizations have fled the country in fear for their lives.
In July, a government-commissioned parliamentary report accused international radio stations, which are among the few providers of independent news in Rwanda, of “genocidal ideology” and suggested that they be forced to reveal their sources. Foreign radio services broadcasting in Rwanda include the BBC and the U.S. government–funded Voice of America, which carry programs in the local language, Kinyarwanda, as well as in French and English.
Radio is the most effective means to reach the population countrywide. A 2002 media law provided for licensing of private radio and TV stations for the first time since the genocide. A number of private radio licenses have been granted since the 2003 elections, and several commercial, religious, and community stations were on the air at year’s end. However, CPJ sources say they carry little independent news and are unlikely to do so any time soon, given the current climate of government intimidation and media self-censorship.
Against a background of continuing tension between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which have fought two wars since 1996, the parliamentary report also accused radio stations in eastern DRC, which can be heard in western Rwanda, of propagating ethnic hatred in the Great Lakes region. The report pointed a finger at a number of stations, including Radio Okapi, a joint project of the United Nations and Hirondelle, an award-winning Swiss organization that promotes peace through media. Radio Okapi was launched in 2002 to promote national reconciliation and support the peace process, and it is the only radio station broadcasting throughout the DRC’s vast territory.
The July parliamentary report also recommended the dissolution of LIPRODHOR, alleging that some of its members promoted ethnic divisionism. Several league members fled the country. The government temporarily froze LIPRODHOR’s bank accounts, forcing the organization to stop operating and to halt publication of Le Verdict (The Verdict), its monthly journal on justice issues, and Umukindo (The Palm Frond), its human rights review. These publications frequently criticized the government, highlighting the plight of genocide survivors and calling on the government to create a compensation fund for them. Although international observers gave little credence to the parliamentary report’s findings regarding LIPRODHOR, the organization issued a public “apology” to the government and the people of Rwanda in September for what it said was the “bad behavior” of some members. It subsequently began operating again with a new board. At year’s end, Le Verdict and Umukindo had not yet resumed publishing.
The government continued to harass Umuseso, Rwanda’s sole independent, local-language newspaper. In November, Umuseso editor Charles Kabonero was tried on criminal charges of defamation and divisionism in connection with an article that accused parliamentary Vice President Denis Polisi of plotting to seize power. He was acquitted of ethnic divisionism but convicted of defamation. He avoided a prison sentence but was ordered to pay a fine and symbolic damages to Polisi.
The Kabonero case was the first criminal case against a news outlet to go to trial since President Kagame took power in 1994, but the government has long intimidated independent journalists, especially those from Umuseso. Staff members said they were harassed and threatened after the article appeared. Kabonero said he was forced into hiding by the threats for about 10 days until he received assurances from senior officials that the harassment would stop.
A series of former Umuseso editors have been forced into exile by threats. In February, Robert Sebufirira, the former managing editor of the newspaper, and Elly Macdowell Kalisa, the former deputy editor, fled Rwanda after receiving death threats they said came from senior members of the government security services. The threats followed articles in Umuseso that accused senior officials of corruption. The flight of Sebufirira and MacDowell followed that of former Umuseso Editor Ismail Mbonigaba in 2003, and another editor before him.
In August, Rwanda’s High Council of the Press (HCP) summoned Kabonero and questioned him about the article on Polisi. When Kabonero refused to reveal his sources or acknowledge “mistakes,” the HCP recommended that the government suspend the publication. Local journalists petitioned Information Minister Laurent Nkusi against a ban and said the HCP had overstepped its powers. Umuseso was not suspended, but only because Polisi decided to bring criminal charges against the paper.
Journalists remain skeptical that the HCP will be independent of government influence. Launched in 2003, the HCP has nine members—three from the private press, one from the state media, two from civil-society groups, and three appointed by the government. It is headed by Privat Rudazibwa, editor of the pro-government Rwanda News Agency. The HCP’s mandate is to accredit journalists, grant broadcasting authorizations, and advise the government on censorship.