Attacks on the Press 2006: Rwanda

The Rwandan media continued operating in an atmosphere of pervasive self-censorship periodically reinforced by government repression. In a January 24 speech broadcast on state radio, President Paul Kagame accused Rwandan journalists of unprofessional conduct, including corruption, and suggested that this justified limits on press freedom.

Authorities used allegations of unethical reporting and participation in the 1994 genocide to suppress critical reporting. Jean-Léonard Rugambage, a journalist with the private local-language newspaper Umuco, was freed in July after spending 11 months in jail on the orders of a “gacaca,” or community, court. CPJ sources said they believed he had been imprisoned for his journalistic work. His imprisonment fueled concern that the gacaca courts were subject to abuse in some cases. The government established some 11,000 gacaca courts in 2002 to try tens of thousands of suspected participants in the genocide. Under this system, suspects are judged by their peers and have no recourse to a lawyer.

Rugambage’s arrest came shortly after an August 2005 article in which he reported alleged corruption and false accusations in gacaca courts in one locality. One of those courts then ordered his preventive detention on a genocide charge. When Rugambage challenged the proceedings before a second gacaca court, he was sentenced to 12 months for contempt and intimidation; he was later placed in the highest category of genocide suspects, meaning he would be tried in a national court and face the death penalty. A gacaca appeals court overturned his contempt conviction in July but kept Rugambage in pretrial detention on the genocide charge. Two days later, he was suddenly released, apparently on orders from the national agency overseeing gacaca proceedings. The status of the genocide charge against him remained unclear; CPJ sources said the charge had been based on vague and contradictory testimony related to a murder.

At a government conference in January on press freedom, the minister of information and the head of the state information agency took turns criticizing Lucie Umukundwa, a correspondent for the Voice of America (VOA), and BBC correspondent Jean-Claude Mwambutsa for their coverage of critical reports issued by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The police spokesman also stated that police would investigate their “ideology.” CPJ sources said this was a clear reference to a 2004 parliamentary report’s accusations that international radio stations were guilty of “genocidal ideology.” In July, unidentified men assaulted Umukundwa’s brother, telling him the attack was a response to her broadcasts on the VOA, according to CPJ sources. This came after another VOA correspondent, Gilbert Rwamatwara, fled the country in late 2005 in fear for his security. Rwamatwara complained of threats and harassment in the wake of interviews he conducted with opposition leaders. Both the VOA and the BBC carry programs in the local Kinyarwanda language, as well as in French and English.

Foreign radio stations remained an important source of independent news, despite the spread of local private radio stations. By late 2006, Rwanda had 10 private radio stations–four commercial, four religious, and two community stations–in addition to the state-owned Radio Rwanda and three affiliated community stations. The commercial radio stations mostly shied away from investigative news and political commentary, according to CPJ sources. A notable exception came in late summer when some commercial stations aired talk shows criticizing authorities over a ban on motorcycle taxis in the capital, Kigali. Television broadcasting remained a state monopoly.

In June, immigration authorities ordered Sonia Rolley, the Rwanda correspondent for Radio France Internationale (RFI) since October 2004, to leave the country within 48 hours. Rolley had received her press accreditation from the Ministry of Information only a month earlier. The government provided no official explanation. RFI began broadcasting on FM in Rwanda in late 2005.

By November 27, RFI was off the air entirely as the government retaliated against the French. Rwandan authorities pulled the station from the FM frequency after a French judge formally accused Kagame, the Tutsi former rebel leader, of involvement in the death of his predecessor in 1994, according to international media reports. Kagame denied any involvement but severed diplomatic relations with France. The downing of Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane triggered the massacre of more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Several journalists also reported intimidation and harassment. Umuco Editor Bonaventure Bizumuremyi went into hiding in August to avoid a police summons, after the High Council of the Press found he had published “unethical” articles. The council is an official media regulatory body attached to the president’s office. Bizumuremyi had also received threatening phone calls. In January, four armed men came to Bizumuremyi’s home at night and broke the door, awakening neighbors, who intervened before the intruders could enter. The attempted break-in occurred after Umuco carried an article critical of the ruling RPF party, according to local sources.

Also in August, Jean Bosco Gasasira, editor of the new Kinyarwanda periodical Umuvugizi, claimed that he received threatening phone calls after publishing an article alleging that nepotism in the current government was comparable to that under the pre-genocide regime of Juvénal Habyarimana. He also complained that he was under police surveillance.

Authorities have also used criminal laws against critical journalists. The High Court in August overturned the November 2004 conviction of Charles Kabonero, editor of the private newspapers Umuseso and Rwanda Newsline, for criminal libel, while affirming his one-year suspended sentence and a fine equivalent to US$2,000 for insulting a public figure. Kabonero had published an article in August 2004 stating that the vice president of parliament’s lower house was challenging Kagame’s leadership and engaging in corruption.

In the course of the year, the government drafted press legislation that would represent a modest improvement in the repressive 2002 Press Law. The bill limited criminal liability to journalists and media owners, thus eliminating liability for printers and vendors. It also deleted the requirement that judges impose maximum sentences on journalists convicted of certain criminal offenses. However, it retained many restrictive features of the existing law. Definitions of criminal offenses remained vague, ambiguous, and broad; the bill also kept libel as a criminal offense. A separate bill gives the High Council of the Press increased authority to regulate and sanction the private media. Both bills were before parliament in late year.