Attacks on the Press 2007: Rwanda

Tension remained high between the independent news media and President Paul Kagame’s government in the run-up to the 2008 parliamentary elections. Authorities summarily closed two private newspapers, stripped critical newspapers of vital advertising revenue, and jailed one journalist and harassed others in response to critical coverage. The bloody legacy of the 1994 genocide continued to affect press freedom as the government and its supporters invoked claims of hate speech to silence dissenting voices.

In February, three men armed with iron bars beat unconscious Editor Jean Bosco Gasasira of the private bimonthly Umuvugizi over stories alleging corruption and mismanagement by top officials, including army Gen. Jack Nziza and Finance Minister James Musoni. The men broke Gasasira’s left hand and smashed his head, arms, and legs while shouting their intent to ensure he could not write again, according to news reports and local journalists. In July, Rwanda’s High Court sentenced one man, an ex-soldier who once served as a bodyguard to top army officers, to life imprisonment in the attack, according to the same sources.

Gasasira resumed publishing several months later, following surgery and intensive rehabilitation, but was questioned by police for three hours in September over newly critical articles, according to local journalists and news reports. Gasasira ruefully commented that interrogation was an improvement. “This time I am happy because I was summoned by police instead of being beaten up with iron bars,” Gasasira told the pro-government daily The New Times after his release without charge.

In response to headlines in the independent press trumpeting government corruption, nepotism, mismanagement, and infighting, the government suddenly terminated advertising contracts with Rwanda’s leading private Kinyarwanda-language newspapers, including Umuseso, Umuco, Umuvugizi, and Rushyashya, according to local journalists. The papers, particularly dependent on advertising revenue, struggled to maintain normal circulation and staff, according to CPJ research. In March, The New Times quoted Kagame as confirming the move. “It is [a] waste of taxpayers’ money for the government to continue advertising in publications that relentlessly write only negative things about it, without recognizing the good things it is doing,” he added.

Relations between the media and government have been “characterized by tension” and an “enormous trust deficit” since the landmark general elections of 2003, according to a 2007 report issued by the Rwanda-based League for Human Rights in the Great Lakes Region (LDGL). The league, whose report was commissioned by the European Union mission in Rwanda, noted that the problems had occurred despite a relatively progressive press law enacted in 2003 and the creation of a press union.

The government and its supporters frequently accused independent journalists of being biased and unprofessional. About 80 percent of Rwandan journalists lack professional experience, training, or formal education beyond high school, according to an LDGL study that surveyed 392 journalists from 34 public and private media outlets. Low revenue for media houses, low pay for reporters, and self-censorship also undermine working conditions, according to the report.

Top officials accused critical newspapers of serving antigovernment interests. On September 9, several top officials, including army spokesman Maj. Jill Rutaremara, accused critical media of collusion with “negative forces”—code for opponents of Rwanda’s Tutsi-dominated government, including Hutu rebels in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo and exiled dissidents. According to news reports and local journalists, Rutaremara’s comments were aired during a four-hour state radio and television program on government and media relations. Rutaremara did not name specific media outlets, but his comments were widely interpreted to have been directed at the Rwanda Independent Media Group (RIMEG), publishers of Umuseso, the English-language Newsline, and the sports and entertainment tabloid Rwanda Champion.

RIMEG, already suffering from the loss of state advertising revenue, suspended publication for three weeks in response to the allegations. The company demanded that government officials substantiate their accusations, but there was no official response, according to local journalists.

During the same September 9 program, Interior Minister Sheikh Musa Fazil Harerimana also threatened to force journalists to reveal sources of leaked government documents. The law is unclear on the issue. Article 65 of Rwanda’s press law contains an apparent contradiction, guaranteeing confidentiality of sources but requiring journalists to “collaborate” with courts upon request, according to CPJ research. Harerimana’s threat drew a public rebuke from Kagame and the state regulatory agency, the High Council of the Press, but the minister did not retract the statement, according to CPJ research.

Throughout the year, journalists for RIMEG were harassed and detained by police and judicial authorities on unsubstantiated criminal charges, CPJ research found.

In June, police interrogated RIMEG Director Charles Kabonero and Newsline Editor Didas Gasana for three hours in connection with stories describing judicial probes into the activities of two public figures, including businessman Tribert Rujugiro, an influential member of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front, according to CPJ research. A court in Kigali later charged the journalists with criminal defamation in connection with the Rujugiro story.

Umuseso News Editor Gérard M. Manzi was detained in August on an unsubstantiated sexual assault accusation and held for a week. The case was pending in late year, although authorities could not locate the purported victim. Manzi was ordered to report to court every week.

Former Umuseso News Editor Emmanuel Niyonteze was held for four days in May on accusations of stealing a laptop during an international disability services conference in Kigali, according to The New Times and local journalists. The charges were later dropped, Umuseso Deputy Managing Editor Furaha Mugasha told CPJ. Mugasha himself was held for a week in August and released on bail on bogus charges of bouncing a check in February 2006, local journalists said. He also told CPJ that he was denied a passport renewal.

The government’s crackdown on the independent press included the summary closure of two private newspapers. In June, Information Minister Laurent Nkusi revoked—without a hearing or court order as stipulated under Rwandan laws—the publishing license of The Weekly Post only a few days after its first edition was issued. The paper was founded by former journalists of the pro-government New Times. The High Council of the Press, exclusively mandated by Rwanda’s 2002 press law to issue disciplinary recommendations against media outlets, was not informed of the ruling until several days after the fact, Executive Secretary Patrice Mulama told CPJ.

Nkusi later told CPJ the ruling was “perhaps” linked to “inaccuracies” in the paper’s application for a publishing license, but he declined to comment further. Nkusi never substantiated the allegations, and the Rwandan Journalists Association did not find any evidence to back his claims upon review of the paper’s application, President Gaspard Safari told CPJ. The Weekly Post filed an appeal.

Nkusi also moved against the private French-language bimonthly Afrique Libération, suspending it indefinitely on April 5, according to CPJ research. In a letter to Director Bonaventure Bizumuremyi that was obtained by CPJ, Nkusi declared that the paper could not publish until a pending criminal defamation suit was settled.

The government continued to invoke vaguely worded laws against ethnic divisionism and genocidal ideology to quiet dissenting views on sensitive topics such as the 1994 genocide, interethnic relations, and the trial of genocide suspects in “gacaca” courts. The community-based courts were set up in 2001 to heal ethnic tensions and speed the trials of hundreds of thousands of genocide suspects.

During Genocide Remembrance Week, an April 15 radio interview of a Hutu Christian priest claiming to have saved the lives of 104 people led authorities to charge host John Williams Ntwali of private City Radio in Kigali with promoting “genocidal ideology,” according to local journalists. Ntwali resigned from the station after Program Director Alex Rutareka suspended him over the interview, allegedly accusing the journalist of “promoting a second [Paul] Rusesabagina,” Ntwali told CPJ. Rusesabagina, a Hutu hotel manager portrayed in the acclaimed 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda,” is an outspoken critic of the Tutsi-dominated regime of Kagame.

The publication in January of an anonymous reader’s open letter comparing ethnic killings during Kagame’s regime to those under the rule of the previous Hutu regime also led authorities to charge Agnès Nkusi-Uwimana of the small-circulation bimonthly Umurabyo with divisionism, sectarianism, and libel. Nkusi-Uwimana was sentenced in April to a year in prison and 400,000 Rwandan francs (US$750) in damages. Nkusi-Uwimana was still behind bars when CPJ conducted its annual census of imprisoned journalists on December 1.

In a statement released in March, the Rwandan League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights stated that “some independent newspapers like Umuco and Rushyashya were being accused of an ideology of genocide and separatism, without relevant evidence, in a scheme to muzzle them.”

Rwanda’s foreign press corps was at times targeted with threats and harassment. Some journalists who spoke on condition of anonymity told CPJ they were routinely denied access to official press conferences after identifying their affiliation.

In January and February, the pro-government press attacked U.S. government-funded broadcaster Voice of America (VOA), accusing the station of biased reporting in interviews with government critics such as Rusesabagina and the Europe-based opposition leader Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, according to CPJ research. A February editorial of the Kinyarwanda pro-government newspaper Imvaho Nshya called for the closure of the VOA, according to local journalists and news reports.

Sources in the VOA’s Kinyarwanda service denied allegations of bias, adding that the station had always included the comments of officials in their reports. VOA has operated under state scrutiny since the station signed an agreement with the government in August 2006 authorizing its FM broadcasts, according to Radio Rwanda.

By year’s end, lawmakers were drafting legislation that could scrap prison sentences for defamation offenses, but challenges remained with removing libel from the country’s penal code, local journalists said.

As supporters of press freedom and press control struggled to achieve an acceptable compromise, the role of Rwanda’s hate media during the genocide hung over the debate. In November, the Tanzania-based International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda reduced the lengthy prison sentences of three former state media journalists convicted of incitement to genocide, according to international news reports.