Sometimes when a paper produces a defamatory piece, an apology will be published on page two in the next edition along with the day's news. In Rwanda, it would appear, a paper will use an entire edition to apologize--if the insults were directed at the president. The latest issue of Ishema, at left, is perhaps a sign of the times for Rwanda's press.
The vernacular bimonthly had recently published an opinion piece written under the byline "Kamikaze" that claimed President Kagame was a sociopath. Many within the media community protested, as did Adrien Servumba, who, branding himself "a concerned citizen," called on the state-run media ombudsman to reprimand the managing director, Fidele Gakire, the state news agency reported. On July 25, the agency reported that men in plainclothes seized copies of the paper from vendors. The same day, members of the Forum of Private Newspapers, an organization of newspaper owners, suspended Gakire from the group for six months.
But the reaction of the management of Ishema was perhaps even more surprising than the reaction from the media community. The paper fell over backward in its attempts to apologize. First, Chief Editor Didace Niyifasha resigned from the paper since he said he was "unaware" of the issue being published in the first place. Then Gakire came out with issue number 25, headlined "Imbabazi!" (Sorry) with a genuflecting Gakire on the cover. According to local journalists who have seen the edition, the entire issue is composed of all the positive stories the paper has written concerning the president, along with a letter of apology addressed to the head of state.
Some have seen this as a positive step. As James Munyaneza writes in the pro-government New Times, for once it was not the security or police forces cracking down on the media but the public and members of the press that reprimanded the paper--a sign, Munyaneza argues, that the Rwandan media may be ready to regulate themselves as proposed by the government four months ago. Gakire confirmed that he faced no threats from security forces, according to local reports. This is indeed a fresh break from previous cases CPJ has monitored in which independent journalists, after harassment and sometimes physical attacks, felt compelled to flee into exile.
But a paper where the senior management does not seem to know what they are publishing is worrying. Local journalists have also told me, both inside and outside the country, that most professional, critical private papers have left the country because of persecution--leaving only less professional publications behind.
"But this is exactly what the Rwandan government wants," exiled journalist Charles Kabonero told me over a year ago. "With the more professional press gone, it is easier to clamp down on the less professional publications by citing legitimate errors."
The government proposed a self-regulating media ombudsman to replace the current pro-government Media High Council in March this year. With few independent media voices left, a self-regulated media may prove little different from a government-controlled body. With a largely pro-government press and a fledgling private media with little editorial clout, the self-regulated ombudsman may prove keener to rebuke writers in a bid to win favor with the executive.