Attacks on the Press in 2008: Rwanda

On paper, Rwanda had more private newspapers and radio stations than at any point in its history. In practice, independent news coverage was minimal due to business woes and government intimidation. One critical editor was forced to flee the country, and a second was deported. Legislation pending in late year would stiffen accreditation requirements and force journalists to reveal sources in court.

The Media High Council, a state regulatory body, reported that 57 private newspapers had registered with the government, although only 37 managed to print a single issue. The council cited limited capital and faulty business planning as the main reasons. In fact, only six private publications published on a regular basis, and all practiced self-censorship, local journalists and media analysts told CPJ. Out of 14 private radio stations, all were supportive of the government and only two provided any detailed political coverage, according to Lars Waldorf, a lecturer in human rights at London’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

A 2007 study by the nonprofit International Research and Exchanges Board found that both private and state media relied heavily on government advertising, which often compromised editorial policy. News outlets that clung to critical reporting were caught in an economic vise.

Private news media such as the Rwandan Independent Media Group (RIMEG)—publisher of Umuseso, the English-language Newsline, and the sports and entertainment tabloid Rwanda Champion—barely managed to print at all during the year, a company executive told CPJ. Charles Kabonero, RIMEG director and editor-in-chief of Umuseso, said advertising revenue shortfalls forced the company to publish only sporadically.

The weekly Kinyarwanda-language newspaper Umuco closed after its founder and editor fled the country to avoid persecution stemming from a March opinion piece critical of President Paul Kagame. Umuco Editor Bonaventure Bizumuremyi said in the editorial that Kagame’s days in office were numbered because of genocide indictments issued by a Spanish judge against 40 Rwandan Defense Forces officers. (The indictments were issued under the Spanish legal principle of “universal jurisdiction.”) The editorial suggested Kagame would face an international criminal tribunal, be forced to live in exile, or commit suicide like Hitler.

The government and state media delivered an immediate, heavy-handed response. Bizumuremyi fled just before police raided his home in the capital, Kigali, local journalists told CPJ. The Media High Council suspended Bizumuremyi’s press accreditation and his publication for one year, the pro-government daily New Times reported. And a chorus of condemnation came from state media; the pro-government weekly Focus compared Bizumuremyi to Hassan Ngeze, a Rwandan journalist sentenced to 35 years in prison for his role in promoting the 1994 genocide.

In July, top Umuseso editor Furaha Mugisha was deported on grounds that he is a Tanzanian citizen. Mugisha, who held both a Rwandan passport and identity card, was born as a refugee in Tanzania and told CPJ the deportation may have stemmed from an Umuseso story about a stalled investigation into the assassination of a leading opposition party leader.

Minister of Information Louise Mushikiwabo displayed an adversarial approach to the news media. Halfway through a World Press Freedom Day event in Kigali in May, she evicted three editors of private Kinyarwanda-language newspapers. Jean Grober Burasa of Rushyashya, Jean Bosco Gasasira of Umuvugizi, and Kabonero of Umuseso were dismissed without explanation. The theme for the World Press Freedom Day event was “freedom of information.”

More troubling was the minister’s August accusation that Rwandan journalists working for the BBC and Voice of America (VOA) were producing “programs that destroy Rwanda’s social fabric,” according to international and local news reports. The next month, Mushikiwabo threatened to suspend the BBC and VOA “if they cannot respond positively to government warnings to abandon their non-factual reporting,” news reports said.

Such veiled accusations can carry great meaning in Rwanda. The pall cast by Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, whose inflammatory broadcasts helped stoke the 1994 genocide, continued to linger over the domestic media, inducing self-censorship. Over the years, the government and its supporters have often alleged hate speech in response to critical news reports. Arrests of journalists on vague, genocide-related charges have waned, however, with none reported in 2008. Former state radio reporter Dominique Makeli was released after serving 14 years in prison on spurious charges of inciting genocide.

The administration, which complained that journalists lacked professionalism, made press training an issue during the year. Press legislation that awaited Kagame’s signature in late year would require journalists to obtain either a university degree or a certificate in journalism in order to receive government-issued press accreditation. The government’s assertions about training were not entirely unfounded: An April study by Canada’s Carlton University found that only 10 percent of practicing Rwandan journalists had formal training. But critics noted that conditioning accreditation on government-set educational requirements would open the door to obstruction.

The president of the Association of Rwandan Journalists, Gaspard Safari, praised provisions in the legislation that guaranteed access to public information, but said the advancements were undermined by other articles. The measure, for example, bars criticism of the president or the army and forces journalists to reveal their sources in court. “It’s not a law but a death sentence for journalism in this country,” Umuvugizi editor Gasasira said.

Kagame remained a favorite of Western governments, many of whom appeared willing to avert their eyes from Rwanda’s press freedom shortcomings. Britain, for instance, promised the equivalent of US$100 million in aid annually over the next decade, with only “light conditionality,” The Economist reported. Tense relations with France were a notable exception. Senior presidential aide Rose Kabuye was arrested in November on a French warrant accusing her of involvement in the 1994 plane crash that killed President Juvenal Habyarimana and eventually helped ignite the genocide.

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