Rwandan minister: ‘It’s OK to be anti-government’

By Tom Rhodes/Africa Program Coordinator on September 10, 2009 12:41 PM ET

CPJ sat down recently with the Rwandan minister of information, Louise Mushikiwabo, who spoke of several media developments, including a new press law. “I am convinced the new legislation will help professionalize our media—there were many holes in the former law,” she told CPJ. Some, however, do not share her enthusiasm. 

As former Rwanda University Lecturer Charles Kambanda points out, the law requires journalists to reveal their sources in court for any criminal investigation. “The principle of nondisclosure of sources in this field is a core ‘professional ethic.’ If we oblige this profession to disclose the sources, then we are actually closing the profession,” he said in a BBC interview.

(Radio Okapi)

Mushikiwabo, at left, also supports the inclusion of criminal defamation in the law—this includes such arbitrary clauses that punish journalists for “publications which endanger public decency.” But the minister told CPJ that any article that proves problematic can be amended in the future. President Paul Kagame had sent the bill back to parliament in May after listening to some concerns given by local media groups.

One way the minister sees the law improving the profession is through its education requirements for journalists. Rwanda has two institutions for journalism, including the two-year-old Great Lakes Media Center in Kigali, which offers certificates in journalism. “I visited the center and some of the students told me they now have the skills to tackle us,” she says, “That’s fine by me. It’s OK to be anti-government, but be professional.”

Although the minister said she is pleased with the local radio stations in her country, she said Rwanda still has “excessive” and unprofessional local newspapers. A leading private paper, Umuseso, currently faces a potential three-month suspension ordered by the country’s Media High Council. The suspension order comes from a July opinion article in Umuseso that compared Kagame with former President Juvenaal Habyarimana, whose 1994 assassination helped trigger the genocide. Mushikiwabo said she cannot fathom the comparison: “One man started the genocide, while the other ended it.”

Umuseso Managing Director Didas Gasana, however, defends the article as an opinion piece that compared two governance systems, not personalities. Gasana said he thinks the suspension was the result of a June 27 press conference in which Mushikiwabo announced that “the days of Umuseso are numbered.” Prior to the new law, however, the minister would have made the final decision whether to suspend a publication—the media law now places such power in the hands of the Media High Council.

This doesn’t ease the mind of the director of Umuseso, Charles Kabonero, who says the Media High Council is controlled by the government and will help the government allay future blame for press censorship. According to a 2007 survey by the nonprofit International Research and Exchanges Board in Washington, most local journalists also viewed the council as partisan to the government.

Kabonero told CPJ that the minister has blocked Umuseso’s access to government press conferences and state advertizing revenue. “They always put forward the idea of a lack of professionalism in Rwanda’s media but they make it impossible to become professional,” he told CPJ.   


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