Hopes of independent press in Rwanda fade as head of media body flees

Rwanda’s progress towards a more liberal media environment has been short-lived.

In May Fred Muvunyi, the head of the Rwanda Media Commission, fled the country for fear of being detained or attacked, and the country’s telecommunications regulator suspended the operation agreement for the BBC’s Great Lakes radio service indefinitely.

Muvunyi’s decision to leave Rwanda is a worrying reversal in the country’s progress toward a free and independent press. He was elected chairman to the Rwanda Media Commission (RMC) when the self-regulatory body was launched in 2013. Its creation heralded a positive move in Rwanda by removing state-control of the media. But when Muvunyi argued against the government’s calls to ban the BBC’s Kinyarwanda language radio service over a television documentary and a government proposal to transfer the RMC’s powers to a state-run body, he says he was threatened.

“I think the government never thought the RMC would become strong the way it is. They expected it to be an institution that they had full control of, they never thought I’d be elected by journalists,” Muvunyi told CPJ by phone from abroad.

Following the 1994 genocide and the role of hate radio in fueling ethnic violence, the Rwandan Patriotic Front government kept a tight grip on all media. In 2013, after almost two decades of state control, a new law re-regulated the media environment created the RMC–a self-regulatory body responsible for protecting journalists and implementing a code of conduct. The Media High Council relinquished its wide powers to suspend publications and prosecute journalists.

Last year, Muvunyi told the author of CPJ’s Rwanda report: “We are a self-regulatory body based on the will of media practitioners, so they comply. The law says that anyone who is not satisfied with our decisions can go to a court of law, but we have finished about 20 cases and nobody has taken it beyond our commission.” The RMC also intervened in a number of cases where journalists were arrested, and convinced police to hand their cases to the self-regulatory body, Muvunyi was quoted as saying in the report “Legacy of Rwanda genocide includes media restrictions, self-censorship.”

It is perhaps because of its success and determination to exercise its mandate that the RMC and its chairman came under attack, prompting Muvunyi to flee.

In October 2014, the Rwandan government suspended the operating agreement under which the BBC’s Great Lakes radio service broadcasts–an act of retaliation after BBC Two aired the television documentary “Rwanda’s Untold Story,” which questioned events surrounding the 1994 genocide. The BBC did not air the documentary in Rwanda, although a copy was available on YouTube. Muvunyi disagreed with the decision, he said, arguing in RMC meetings and to journalists that discussion about how best to respond to allegations in the documentary and media ethics should begin with the RMC, not the government. “I said there was little point in suspending the Kinyarwanda service when the ‘offence’ was committed by BBC Two, a television channel broadcasting in the United Kingdom,” Muvunyi told CPJ.

In March, a Prime Minister’s Order was drafted, proposing that some RMC powers be transferred to the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA), according to a news report which said it had seen the document. The ministerial order proposed the end of self-regulation, giving RURA, a state-run body that regulates telecommunications, broadcasting, postal services and public utilities, responsibility to “protect the interests of all consumers against programs of pornography, child abuse, violence, discriminatory programs, divisionism as well as programs against national integrity,” another news report said.

Gerald Mbanda, head of media and communications at the Rwanda Governance Board, denied the government was trying to regain control of the media. He told The East African, a Kenya-based newspaper, “These allegations are unfounded,” and said there “is no attempt by the government to take back media self-regulation.”

Muvunyi told CPJ that on April 2 he was invited for negotiations at a government district office. “They offered me some personal benefits to allow the Prime Minister’s Order to go through cabinet smoothly,” he said. Muvunyi said he refused the offer because he thought it could affect the progress made by government toward a self-regulatory media environment and because it “contradicts the government’s commitment to have a free media.” He added that he had no idea at the time how serious the consequences of his refusal might be. The Rwandan government has not yet responded to CPJ’s request for comment on Muvunyi’s claim.

Muvunyi said that on April 3 he received a tip off from a friend of a plan to have him killed. He told CPJ he was also sent copies of text messages that showed a conversation about plans to remove him. He said the language used was deliberately ambiguous and he could not be sure if it referred to his position as chairman or implied something more menacing.

On April 6, Muvunyi said, he was summoned to the Rwanda Governance Board. “It was then I wondered if something might happen to me,” he said, adding that he suspected he would be removed from the RMC if the order wasn’t enforced.

On May 9, the Minister of Local Government called a meeting of the RMC board. As chairman Muvunyi was there. “He pointed a finger at me, reminded me of what I’d said about the BBC issue, how I insisted on making a statement against the government, and then said that I was working for foreign forces,” Muvunyi said, adding that there were about 10 people in the room. “The minister was furious with me, told me to apologize, and I did. I said I was sorry if I had made a statement that created that impression, it was not my intention.” Muvunyi said his apology to the local government minister was publicized on social media.

Muvunyi said that because he took a stand on the BBC documentary he “was accused of treason by the Minister of Local Government and by Gerald Mbanda.”

“It’s the weapon they use when they want to do something harmful to you. First of all they try to tarnish your image. The first thing they wanted was to oust me. And now they have been successful,” he said.

He added that a report commissioned by the RMC on the state of the media was due to have been released on May 3, World Press Freedom Day. The report noted positive developments about media freedom in Rwanda as well as challenges, Muvunyi said. “It also talked about the BBC. We were trying to remind people that there was an issue that needed attention. I think this scared them.” Muvunyi said the report was never released due to government’s intervention.

CPJ contacted RURA, Mbanda, the Minister of Local Government, and the offices of the President and the Prime Minister to seek comment on Muvunyi’s claims, but has not yet received a response.

On May 30, a few days after Muvunyi left Rwanda, RURA published its decision to suspend the BBC’s Great Lakes service for an indefinite period, despite the order giving it the power to regulate content not yet being approved. The RURA “concluded that in airing the documentary, the BBC abused press freedom and free speech, violated its own editorial guidelines, transgressed journalistic standards, and violated Rwandan law, with particular reference to genocide denial and revisionism, inciting hatred, and divisionism among Rwandans.”

The BBC rejected the allegations and rejected a letter of protest against the documentary that had 48 signatories, including the former president of the International Committee of the Red Cross. In its response to the letter, the BBC said the documentary had not breached the BBC’s editorial guidelines, according to news reports.

Rwanda’s relationship with the U.K. has further worsened after the arrest of the country’s intelligence chief Karenzi Karake who, according to reports, was detained on a European arrest warrant at London’s Heathrow Airport on June 20. He is accused of ordering massacres in the wake of the 1994 genocide, according to news reports. Back in Rwanda, a debate is underway as to whether President Paul Kagame should change the constitution and run for a third term. The ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front recently endorsed Kagame for a third term. Although some radio stations have hosted debates on the topic, the press is “tame,” according to the Financial Times and now that the BBC’s Kinyarwanda channel has been silenced, independent voices are more muted than ever.

“BBC radio is needed in Rwanda,” Muvunyi told CPJ. “Broadcasting in English or Swahili means nothing. The BBC’s Kinyarwanda service is the only voice that people were trusting. It can cover issues that other Rwandan media won’t touch.”