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What is free press in Rwanda?

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Laetitia Bader from Human Rights Watch accuses me of justifying restrictions imposed on independent media in Rwanda by the RPF government. I do not know how she came to this conclusion. But I have a fundamental philosophical difference with her. I believe that freedom is not a gift to the governed from their rulers. It is, as Kwame Nkrumah wrote in Africa Must Unite, ‘the precious reward, the shining trophy of struggle and sacrifice.’ Freedom of the press in Rwanda will not come from the magnanimity of the government but from the struggle and sacrifice by its journalists.

I have always argued that the biggest threat to press freedom in Uganda is not the state but the market. The media grave yard is littered with newspapers that closed because readers gave them a vote of no confidence using their wallets rather than because they were shut down by the state. The inability of media institutions to recruit, harness and retain talent has created an exodus of the best journalists from news organisations to other businesses, NGOs, the government, and out of Uganda. This coupled with a small private sector (for advertising) and lack of a large educated middle class (for reading) has greatly undermined the cause of press freedom.

The situation in Rwanda is worse because its intellectual class there is even smaller. The intellectuals outside of the state and the market i.e. in civil society are too few to support a vibrant media. I argued that therefore, government actions against the media should be seen as a consequence rather than a cause of the Rwanda’s democratic deficit. The good news is the Rwanda government is investing in mass education and is promoting private enterprise growth. This will inevitably produce the middle class and a sizeable private sector to support democratic politics.

No where in my article that Bader was responding to did I justify government actions against the press. I have raised my concerns about the treatment of journalists and newspapers with Rwandan leaders including President Paul Kagame. I have found the Rwandan leadership extremely eager to listen to my views on why they should be tolerant even though their journalists can be extremely atrocious.   Bader referred to Beneventura Bizimuremyi who wrote an article with a picture of Kagame next to that of Adolf Hitler. He accused Kagame of committing genocide adding that the Rwandan president will commit suicide like Hitler. When police summoned him, he escaped to Uganda where he has been seeking a visa to be resettled in Netherlands. Apparently, some Rwandan ‘journalists’ have learnt how to exploit their government’s paranoia with the press to create an easy way to get asylum abroad.

Bader knows that no media in the West would do such a thing because they exercise maturity in reporting. In a volatile situation like that of Rwanda, you need even greater care. It should not therefore be surprising that police summoned him.

I am attracted to Rwanda because of its accomplishments, well recognising that it has weaknesses. I know that most outsiders are attracted to our failures rather than our accomplishments. Increasingly, we as Africans have caught this disease. I focus my analysis on Rwanda’s achievements because they can work as lessons for Uganda. But that does not amount to justifying every wrong of its government.

Since 2000, Rwanda has developed the best and most effective government Sub Sahara Africa has produced over the last 50 years. Anyone with knowledge of Africa’s failures would not fail to see how the RPF government has set itself apart from the rest of the region in terms of discipline, hard work, honesty and focus. For the first time in decades, an African government is reconstructing a national vision.

It is not only me who sees this. Leading personalities in politics (Bill Clinton, Tony Blair); academia (Michael Porter, Paul Farmer, Michael Fairbanks); in business (Joe Richie, Bill Gates); in religion (Rick Warren) are flocking to Rwanda. All these people have taken its citizenship and also taken on the role of advisors to Kagame.

This poor and obscure landlocked country had been written off as a failed state only 14 years ago. Today, it has cofounded everybody by initiating one of the successful institutional and economic turnarounds in living memory.

With these achievements to its credit, news comes that a journalist has been arrested or a newspaper has been shutdown. Sometimes, the ‘journalist’ is a fake: one politician paid money to defame his adversary. The paper printed 200 copies that were hardly read by anyone. The injured politician leverages the state to take revenge on the journalist. News spreads internationally that Rwanda is killing ‘independent media.

‘ The costs on the government’s reputation far outweigh the benefits which accrue to the individual politician. It therefore seems to me that it is not in the self interest of the Rwandan state to arrest journalists.

Bader is hostile to Rwanda’s laws on genocide and divisionism. A nation’s laws are shaped by its experience and history. If you form a Jihad in Palestine or Afghanistan you would be seen as a liberation fighter. If you formed a Jihad in New York, you would be smoked out by the FBI as a terrorist. If you said that you wanted to commit suicide just before boarding a plane at Entebbe, officials there would laugh at you. If you did so in Los Angeles, you would be whisked off for questioning by the FBI.

Only 14 years ago, Rwanda lost nearly a million people in genocide. The mobilisation for the genocide was conducted using the mass media. The victims of the hate campaign were the Tutsi who now lead the government in Rwanda. Their experience with the mass media is not as an instrument of democracy but of extermination. It is that psychology that shapes their stance on media freedom. To ignore this reality ‘ their experience ‘ would be naive. In Uganda, the media has historically been an instrument of democracy. That is why press freedom enjoys broad national support. Not so for Rwanda because its experience is different.

amwenda@independent.co.ug

www.andrewmwendasblog.blogspot.com

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