May 7, 2008
His Excellency Paul Kagame
President of the Republic of Rwanda
c/o Embassy of the Republic of Rwanda to the United States
1714 New Hampshire Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20009
Via facsimile: (202) 232-4544
Dear Mr. President:
As an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to upholding the principles of press freedom worldwide, we would like to express our concern about the increasing intimidation by your government of Rwanda's independent media in the run-up to parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year.
On Friday, three editors of private Kinyarwanda-language newspapers were suddenly expelled from the afternoon session of a World Press Freedom Day event at the Serena Hotel in the capital, Kigali, despite attending the media stakeholders' forum since the morning as registered participants, according to local journalists and news reports.
Jean Grober Burasa of Rushyashya, Jean Bosco Gasasira of Umuvugizi, and Charles Kabonero of Umuseso, were dismissed without explanation by Rwandan Information Ministry officials, the organizers of the event, as they returned from a lunch break, Gasasira told CPJ. The journalists, who edit newspapers known for their critical coverage of the government, expected to participate in afternoon discussions about press freedom issues in Rwanda, according to Gasasira.
Speaking to CPJ by telephone on Friday, Rwandan Information Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said the event was open to all media stakeholders, excluding four private newspapers: Umuseso, Umuco, Rushyashya and Umuvugizi, which were not sent invitations.
"For a long time, these are papers that publish biased articles, articles not based on facts, and even articles of a destructive nature," she told CPJ. "I decided not to invite them because I thought it was an opportune time to send a message to these four papers that they must correct their behavior," she said. She declared that she would urge other officials to bar the papers from future government functions. "They are newspapers that have no education value to Rwandans, no entertainment value, nothing except publishing harmful lies," she told the pro-government Focus newspaper this week.
Mr. President, we are greatly concerned by the summary removal of our colleagues in reprisal for their journalism. This is a flagrant violation of their rights to access and inquire on all events of public life as guaranteed by Article 65 of Rwanda's 2002 press law.
We are also concerned that Mushikiwabo's public comments appear to contradict not only the government's official policy of promoting media development and freedom, but also the mandate of the Information Ministry to facilitate the implementation of those policies. While her comments echoed long-standing complaints of the government toward Rwanda's embattled independent press, national press laws grant exclusive disciplinary authority on journalism ethics violations to the High Council of the Press, the official media regulator.
The challenges facing the Rwandan media, including media development and journalism training, can only be overcome with the government's full engagement with all stakeholders, in a process of public consultation, not confrontation.
We are also troubled by increasing hostility in public statements toward the independent press in response to critical coverage. On April 11, the government expelled from the country journalist Robert Mukombozi, a correspondent of neighboring Uganda's leading daily Monitor, in connection with his journalism. Minister Mushikiwabo told CPJ last month Mukombozi lacked proper journalism accreditation as well as "objectivity" in his articles.
Two days later, during a genocide remembrance speech at the U.S. Embassy in Kigali, Théodore Simburudari, the president of prominent genocide survivor organization IBUKA, accused the British Broadcasting Corporation and U.S.-government funded Voice of America, both of which broadcast into Rwanda, of "promoting genocide ideology," according to local journalists and news reports.
The pro-government daily New Times quoted Simburudari as saying that the stations had been "persistently hosting well-known revisionists in their studios," thereby "boosting the genocide ideology." Mushikiwabo later told CPJ that she was in "total agreement" with Simburudari's comments. The accusations targeted popular Kinyarwanda programs in the Rwandan diaspora, including the BBC's weekly call-in program "Imvo N'Imvano." Several journalists told CPJ that their professionalism and integrity had been questioned by the government and its supporters for seeking comments from both officials and exiled opposition critics.
"We are not the enemies of the government, we are partners in the development of the country," senior journalist Marcel Museminari told CPJ. "We want to live in a country where everyone's rights are respected." Museminari is a member of the Rwanda Ethics Commission, an independent self-regulatory media institution.
Legislation that would decriminalize defamation and libel is pending, and your government has called for more private investment in the media sector. Both are encouraging signs, but we are troubled by the ever-increasing intimidation of the independent press. We also remain concerned about the summary closures since last year of two independent newspapers: The Weekly Post and Afrique Libération.
Mr. President, we call on to use all your influence to ensure that your government works constructively with the free press to address mutual grievances. We also call on you to use your influence to ensure that officials adhere to the rule of law in their actions toward the media. Rwanda must finally put an end to a pattern of intimidation to silence critical journalists. Under your leadership, Rwanda should seek to develop media policies consistent with the legal guarantees embodied in your country's laws and constitution. We ask that your government support a critical media rather than marginalizing journalists who express disagreement with government policy.