Five years after helping her leave her region due to threats, CPJ catches up with Rwandan journalist Lucie Umukundwa to learn more about her struggles to resettle in another continent, regain a foothold in journalism and continue to make an impact in Africa.
In August 2006, shortly after a government press conference in which then-VOA correspondent Lucie Umukundwa had asked unwelcome questions about recent media attacks, unidentified men badly beat her brother and left him with a warning: “If your sister refuses to shut her mouth, we will kill you and she won’t be spared.” Umukundwa went into hiding, but made a dash for the Democratic Republic of Congo’s border when a car full of men pulled up to the friend’s house where she was staying and asked for the journalist. It was then VOA colleagues told us of Umukundwa’s plight. CPJ and other groups arranged for her to relocate to France and attend a master’s program in journalism at the University of Strasbourg.
Today, Umukundwa lives just outside Paris, where she has been given asylum. Like many journalists forced into exile due to threats of violence or imprisonment, Umukundwa, a single mother of two children, has faced a difficult struggle to resettle in a new country and regain a foothold in journalism On a recent trip to Paris I finally had the opportunity to meet her. We had corresponded frequently but never met in person. We discussed her experience since finishing her masters in journalism, the role of exile media and the state of media in Africa today.
EW: You fled Africa at the end of August 2006. What did you do?
LU: I first left for one year to a journalism program in Strasbourg, France. The program was supported by CPJ and I had support from other groups for my family. In this I was very lucky. After these studies, I returned to Africa for one project and came back to France.
EW: How did you find the experience in exile?
LU: It was very difficult to get integrated. The hardest time was waiting for my asylum status–waiting without working felt like a prison. Then to find an apartment and a job and with two children was very difficult. After getting my papers I had to start a new life as a reporter in a new country. It was not easy to get a job in the media or other places. I tried to start working as a journalist again–I continued reporting for VOA. Then I helped with a newspaper created two years ago: La Voix. They contacted me to say they were looking for someone with experience and training, which I had. And recently I proposed features for Slate Afrique online magazine. It is the beginning of a new life for me but it took time. Many other journalists in exile who haven’t had the chance to go to school here have a more difficult time opening doors.
EW: Many journalists in exile regret they can no longer report on their regions or make an impact. Do you think this is true?
LU: No. I feel I can help Africa better in some ways. Working from France I have the skills and resources without the pressures. Because I had the chance to go school here, I feel I know more about the field of journalism than I did before; I have access to an international perspective. I can offer another view. I have experience now inside and outside Africa.
EW: Do you think exile media targeting audiences in Africa have a broad enough reach?
LU: I believe so. For example, many journalists here are trying to work online. It may be that there is only a small population that can get online in many communities in Africa, but because there is such a strong storytelling tradition, people share news and talk about it. The impact is much more than the number of people accessing a publication directly.
EW: When you left Rwanda, it was due to threats against independent journalists like yourself. How do you think the situation is today?
LU: I can’t say the situation is good. When I talk to journalists they can’t talk about sensitive subjects. Everyone is afraid. I’m worried.
EW: What concerns do you have about the media in other countries?
LU: When I see what has happened in Abidjan, I feel worried. Because I’m Rwandan I have experienced this [ethnic violence] before. I think if journalists are more skilled they can prevent some conflicts. The media needs access to education. For me, I would like to give the message to journalists: We have to be careful. Journalists have to know the people need them to help bring solutions to conflict not put fuel on fire.