Attacks on the Press 2005: Rwanda


The arrival of private radio stations did little to improve the climate for media in Rwanda, where repression by the government of President Paul Kagame and self-censorship by journalists all but stifled critical coverage. Local media and human rights groups often failed to speak out against intimidation and attacks on the press. Previous acts of violence against journalists remained unpunished.

At least nine commercial, community, and religious radio stations were on the air by year’s end, as were new provincial stations belonging to state-owned Radio Rwanda; however, CPJ sources said that the new stations broadcast few critical political programs or investigative reports. Television broadcasting remained a state monopoly.

After several years’ delay, “gacaca” courts finally began trying suspects in the 1994 genocide, in which some 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in little more than three months. The courts, adapted from a form of Rwandan traditional justice, were set up to try tens of thousands of suspects who have been held in overcrowded jails for more than 11 years.

International human rights groups and independent observers expressed concern that genocide allegations were being used in some cases to settle personal scores and to punish government critics, including journalists. In the gacaca system, the accused is judged by peers and has no recourse to a defense lawyer. The courts can hand down prison sentences and, for lesser crimes such as looting, order civil reparations. Prison sentences can be partially converted into community service in cases where suspects confess their crimes.

In a move that made international headlines, Rwandan authorities arrested Belgian Catholic priest and journalist Guy Theunis as he passed through the capital, Kigali, in early September. They accused him of publishing material that had incited people to participate in the 1994 genocide; a few days later, Theunis became the first foreigner to appear before a gacaca court. The charges against Theunis related to publication of material from the newspaper Kangura, whose editor was sentenced by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in 2003 to life imprisonment for genocide.

Theunis worked as a missionary in Rwanda from 1970 to 1994, and edited the French-language review Dialogue, which covered social and political issues. Theunis told the gacaca court that he was astonished by the accusations and that he had merely translated excerpts from Kangura as part of a press review in Dialogue. CPJ sources also expressed shock at the allegations, saying they were probably motivated either by politics or by personal animosities. Theunis was a critic of the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which is now in power. Following strong diplomatic pressure from Belgium, the former colonial power, Rwanda agreed to transfer Theunis to Belgium for trial.

In September, journalist Jean-Léonard Rugambage was jailed on the orders of gacaca authorities and accused of participating in a genocide-related murder, although several local sources told CPJ they believe he was jailed for his journalistic work. Rugambage, a reporter for the twice-monthly newspaper Umuco, was held in the central town of Gitarama. His arrest came shortly after he wrote an article for the August 25 edition of Umuco that accused gacaca officials in the Gitarama region of corruption, mismanagement, and witness tampering.

CPJ sources said the evidence against Rugambage appeared to be flimsy. In November, Rugambage was found in contempt of a gacaca court and sentenced to a year in prison after he protested that the presiding judge was biased. Rugambage said the judge refused to consider defense evidence or testimony, according to CPJ sources. The underlying charge remained pending.

Umuco, which is based in Kigali and publishes mainly in the local language Kinyarwanda, has been targeted for its criticism of the authorities. In August, its editor, Bonaventure Bizumuremyi, was twice held by police for questioning following publication of an article on police corruption and a story that called for the release of jailed opposition leader and former president Pasteur Bizimungu. In mid-September, police seized copies of Umuco and summoned Bizumuremyi several times for questioning. He said he had also received anonymous telephone threats. One article in the seized edition likened Kagame to his predecessors and called him a dictator.

At the beginning of the year, Rwango Kadafi and Didas Gasana became the latest in a series of journalists from the critical weekly Umuseso to flee the country in fear for their safety. Gasana had been detained and threatened by unidentified armed men at the Ugandan border in December 2004, while Kadafi and another Umuseso journalist were victims of a vicious knife assault the same month. The attackers were subsequently identified as two government soldiers and a civilian, according to CPJ sources. All three attackers were arrested and held for a week, but they were then released. No further action has been taken against them.

In March, a Rwandan appeals court stiffened a previous sentence against Umuseso Editor Charles Kabonero, who was convicted of defaming the deputy speaker of parliament, Denis Polisi, in a 2004 article. The court imposed a one-year suspended prison sentence and ordered Kabonero to pay the equivalent of US$2,000 in damages. The trial court had earlier imposed only a symbolic fine and acquitted him on the more serious criminal charge of “divisionism.”

A media law introduced in 2002 imposes criminal sanctions on the media for a wide range of ill-defined offenses such as “divisionism,” which is punishable by one to five years in prison. Accusations of divisionism as well as “genocide ideology” have been used to intimidate journalists. In 2004, they were used to purge the Rwandan League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, LIPRODHOR, of government critics, forcing several of its leaders into exile and closing its two specialized publications on human rights and justice. Le Verdict, LIPRODHOR’s well-established monthly journal on justice issues, stopped publishing in July 2004. CPJ sources said its absence has left a marked gap in coverage.