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Rwanda and its critics

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Inside one nation’s struggle against deeply entrenched prejudice

Over the last five months, 19 journalists formerly working with News of the World newspaper have been arrested in the United Kingdom for hacking into people’s voicemails for news information. Six top company executives have been forced to resign and two of them have been arrested.

The newspaper has been closed by its owner, Rupert Murdock, and his son has been forced out as chairman of the parent company, News International, for presiding over this mess. Note that this newspaper had been in existence for more than 150 years.

In spite of all these investigations, arrests and resignations, I have not read anyone who has condemned the government of UK. On the contrary, public opinion is behind it in cracking down on this criminality. Human rights groups see it as normal and justified. Associations for the defense and promotion of media freedom approve.

But if these actions based on the same facts had been taken by the Rwanda government, hell would have broken lose.  Media and human rights activists and journalists would have outdone themselves condemning the government for its hostility to press freedom and suppressing free speech. Officials from the Rwanda government would try to explain their case to a biased, prejudiced and hostile international and regional press. But their arguments and facts showing that this was in response to criminal activity by the journalists would fall on deaf ears. Just for the sake of balance, Rwanda government explanation would be presented as mere footnotes in the frenzy of this broad-based condemnation.

I have learned from experience that all too often, some journalists in Rwanda indulge in blatant acts of criminality involving but not limited to blackmail, extortion and even treason. Some (I suspect unwittingly) collude with people who are plotting violent rebellion without careful consideration of the dangers of such actions. Security agencies track their emails and telephone calls. Again, the Rwandan government is asked not to take action because that would be a violation of press freedom. Would a British, American or French journalist share information with Al Qaeda, exchange emails and actively promote its cause and remain free?

It is one of the most frustrating things about the debate on Rwanda that it is often bereft of a factual content. Having been branded despotic and hostile to freedom, analysts take this categorisation for granted. Rwanda government is guilty once accused and no amount of evidence it puts forth can exonerate it. Therefore, whenever a Rwandan journalist or opposition politician gets killed, whether true or false, the accusation against the government is accepted on its face value.

This bias is the reason why the same events in Rwanda and the UK generate diametrically opposed responses – one sober and understanding, the other irrational and condemnatory. The issue is not what UK or Rwanda government will have done. The yardstick of judgment will be the existing bias about either country. The UK government is given the benefit of doubt; so negative accusations would need to have high levels of proof to be accepted. Rwanda is condemned regardless of the facts because international human rights groups and local, regional and international media have successfully branded it hostile to freedom.

For example, in The Independent of February 24th to March 1st, AFP journalist Steven Terrill wrote an article urging President Paul Kagame to come out and deny allegations of murdering Rwandans whenever it happens. He also urged Kagame to condemn violence against regime critics. To the uninformed, Terrill is making a fair point. But to those who follow Rwanda well, he is either being hypocritical or exhibiting inexplicable ignorance.

Terrill has lived in Rwanda for three years. During this time, two or three real and alleged Rwandan dissidents have been killed. In almost all the cases, the government of Rwanda has woken up to find itself engulfed in an avalanche of accusations from human rights groups and journalists – claiming it was behind the death. The government finds itself in a position to reactively defend itself rather than proactively show its compassion to the victims. In all cases, it has openly condemned violence meted out against any of its citizens – exactly what Terrill claims it is not doing. Yet the bigger problem is that such actions find limited space in media.

For instance, when a dissident general, Kayumba Nyamwasa, was shot at in South Africa, the government of Rwanda issued a statement condemning his shooting and even sent a message to his family. This was a small footnote in the story. When one Charles Ingabire was killed in Uganda, last year, Kagame said at a press conference in Kampala a few days later that the government of Rwanda cares about each one of its citizens regardless of where they are or their political views. This aspect of Kagame’s presentation did not get into any newspaper.

Therefore, Kagame personally and his government generally have already done exactly what Terrill is asking for – even though not with the finesse of a highly skilled PR machinery as in America. However, journalists do not give as much prominence to what the government says as they do what its critics are saying. It would need a PR machinery of extraordinary skill for Rwanda to get above the deeply entrenched stereotypes against it. Therefore, whenever there is a scuffle between Rwanda government and a journalist, regardless of the facts of the case, the narrative in most media will pit Devil Kagame against Angel journalism.

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