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Rwanda’s Free Press?

By matthew stein

Report ranks Rwanda’s press freedom among worst in the world

The Rwandan government has expressed outrage over a recent Reporters Without Borders (RSF) report that ranked it amongst the ten worst countries in the world for press freedoms. Placed in the 169 spot, out of a total of 178, the ranking was Rwanda’s worst since the index was launched in 2002.

As justification for its decision, RSF said in the report: ‘Rwanda (169th), where President Paul Kagame

was returned to power in a highly questionable election, has fallen 12 places and now has Africa’s third worst ranking. The closure of leading independent publications, the climate of terror surrounding the presidential election and Umuvugizi deputy editor Jean- Lonard Rugambage’s murder in Kigali were the reasons for this fall. Journalists are fleeing the country because of the repression, in an exodus almost on the scale of Somalia’s.’

On Oct. 21, Rwanda’s acting Information Minister Protais Musoni, sternly denounced the report: ‘Reporters Without Borders have chosen once again to issue biased and irresponsible information that distorts the reality in Rwanda, based on unverified and grossly distorted perceptions of the political situation,’ he said.

Musoni went on to criticize the ‘climate of terror’ RSF alleges during the August presidential elections. ‘On the contrary, the elections were described by the Commonwealth Observer Group as having been conducted in a peaceful atmosphere Campaign freedoms were provided for candidates, and they enjoyed freedom of movement and assembly in the conduct of their campaigns; and the European Union congratulated Rwanda for the organization of the Presidential Elections, in particular the calm atmosphere.’

Musoni also denounced RSF for not taking into account the context for the suspension of two independent publications, Umuseso and Umuvugizi. ‘There is no effort by Reporters without borders to point out the truth regarding the six-month suspension of two tabloids, which were suspended for chronic failure to adhere to the media law, with reporting that was ethnically divisive and damaging to the efforts towards national reconciliation, in the manner previously seen in the period leading to the genocide in 1994,’ he said.

However, numerous Rwandan journalists argue that the media crisis in Rwanda extends beyond censorship to intimidation. Didas Gasana, Charles Kabonero and Richard Kayigamba, Umuseso’s former deputy editor, chief editor and web editor respectively, have all fled from Rwanda on account of security issues. Former editor of Umuvugizi, Jean Bosco Gasasira, was granted exile in Sweden after he felt his life was in jeopardy; Gasasira had nearly been beaten to death by unknown thugs in February 2007.

Numerous other journalist have also reported violent threats. On June 25, 2010, Umuvugizi deputy editor Jean-Leonard Rugambage was shot and killed outside his home in Kigali by unknown assailants. Gasasira accused Rwandan security of the murder for a report Rugambage was writing on the shooting of Rwandan general Kayumba Nyamwasa in South Africa. However, Information Minister Musoni claims that Rugambage was killed out of revenge for acts he committed during the 1994 genocide, and the assailants have since confessed and been arrested. The gruesome discovery in mid-July of the almost decapitated body of Democratic Green Party Vice President Andre Kagwa Rwisereka, didn’t reassure any critics either.

Nevertheless, the extent of this intimidation and violence can still hardly compare the situation in Somalia, as RSF alleges. In Somalia the two leading Islamist militias, Al-Shabaab and Hizb-Al-Islam, are gradually taking control of the media to  broadcast their religious and political propaganda. In Rwanda, 40 percent of the media is still privately owned. And Kigali is simply not Mogadishu. In Somalia, critics are not shut down or threatened with law suits; they are abducted from their homes and executed, often savagely, without trial or jury.

This allegation runs the risk of undermining RSF’s credibility and the validity of their internationally respected index. According to RSF, their index, ‘reflects the degree of freedom that journalists and news organisations enjoy in each country, and the efforts made by the authorities to respect and ensure respect for this freedom.’ To prepare the index, RSF uses a questionnaire with 43 criteria that includes, ‘every kind of violation directly affecting journalists (such as murders, imprisonment, physical attacks and threats) and news media (censorship, confiscation of newspaper issues, searches and harassment). And it includes the degree of impunity enjoyed by those responsible for these press freedom violations,’ says RSF. ‘It also measures the level of self-censorship in each country and the ability of the media to investigate and criticise. Financial pressure, which is increasingly common, is also assessed and incorporated into the final score.’

The former deputy editor of Umuseso, Didas Gasana, now in exile in Uganda, sits down with The Independent to explain why he left Rwanda and his impressions of the RSF report.

Why did you leave Rwanda?

My life was at stake. There were death threats, I was under constant surveillance and there was a crackdown against media and opposition politicians in the country. I received a tip that there was a possibility of abduction against me and I decided to relocate and watch developments from a distance…I have been here since May and I haven’t seen my wife, mother or son since then. I would love to see them but since I have been labelled as an enemy of the state, if they come here to see me, they could get in trouble.

What are you trying to achieve with your new publication Newsline?

After the suspension of Umuseso and Umuvugizi, I thought that it was our duty to close the information blackout in Rwanda especially because we were entering the critical point of elections…With the suspension of Umuseso in April there were no independent newspapers left, so launching Newsline was like waging war against the government. We felt the battle of free speech needed to go on. The content of this publication, however, is different. It is very hard for our journalist in Rwanda to do investigative journalism since our publication is banned. We have some reporters there, but they have to use secret sources and they can’t identify themselves.

What is life like in Uganda?

Life is very challenging. Privately I’m living without my family and in terms of my profession, I’d be happy to be working in Kigali. Working from Uganda where you don’t have direct access to your sources and people are afraid to talk to you over the phone is very difficult. I am enjoying Uganda hospitality and their freedoms and I envy the press freedoms here. I wish Kagame picked up from his former leader when it comes to press freedoms and liberties.

What is your impression of the RSF (Reporters without Borders) report?

I don’t think it was too harsh, but I don’t think it was 100 percent accurate either’few things are. We have to look at what informs that ranking. Why is Rwanda amongst the world’s worst 10? What happened this year? Two papers were closed, three journalists are in jail, one journalist (Jean-Leonard Rugambage) suffered a shocking death, quite a few journalists are leaving and a new draconian media law was passed. If I would rank the country I would rank it lower than 169. But you still can’t compare to Somalia where so many journalists are killed. But the pattern in Rwanda shows a heavy crackdown this year. These reports by RSF are meant to help us evaluate ourselves and clean our house. But judging from the minister’s comments, the government is just classifying the whole report as a fraud, but that’s not the case.

The Rwandan government and Media Council say Umuseso lacked professionalism. Do you feel the quality of your journalism should share some of the responsibility for the paper’s closure?

For the past 10 years that I have been in journalism in Rwanda I have explained this many times. Professional journalists to the government are journalists who write what they want. If you write something that they don’t, they brand you unprofessional. The executive secretary of the Media Council has never been a journalist yet he’s judging whether others are professional or not…Umuseso had the biggest circulation in Rwanda and we had a very big impact…I’m not saying I’m perfect. But we refuse to be bogged down by the government’s line. And it’s not just us; the government even brands the BBC and VOA as unprofessional and bias.

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