Umuco saga: Why all eyes are on new Minister Mushikiwabo

For the past two weeks, the local media has been in the public limelight, and not for the right reasons. Excesses continue to characterize certain media outlets, thus undoing efforts to build a free and responsible press.

For the past two weeks, the local media has been in the public limelight, and not for the right reasons. Excesses continue to characterize certain media outlets, thus undoing efforts to build a free and responsible press.

The case that has dominated the public domain is no less than that of Umuco newspaper, which in a highly contemptuous arrogance, unilaterally declared President Paul Kagame a wanted man who remains with few options, namely (God forbid), to hang himself, flee to exile, surrender to the International Criminal Court, or cling to power until death.

That a newspaper went far overboard and gave the Head of State the said options, left the general public and journalists alike dumbfounded.

The rude and derogative two-page opinion piece forced journalists, in an unprecedented move, through their own self-regulatory commission, to request the High Council of the Press (HCP) to withdraw accreditation from Umuco director Bonaventure Bizumuremyi and to ask the Ministry of Information (Mininfor) to recommend a one-year ban on the errant publication.

They resolved to file a lawsuit against Bizumuremyi, who they roundly accused of ridiculing the President, misleading the public and Genocide revisionism. They also condemned an editorial, published in the same edition (issue number 45, March 12-27) which they considered as inciting public hatred against the Government and promoting ethnic division  The bimonthly had claimed that Tutsi State Ministers are in charge of monitoring their more senior Hutu cabinet Ministers.

Such swift action by the media fraternity was taken as a measure to help save the image of the industry which got to its lowest in the 1994 Rwanda Genocide when some media outlets openly urged masses to kill. These radical resolutions show how local journalists are frantically struggling to give their profession the respect it deserves, and save the public from manipulation.

And to President Paul Kagame and other officials unfairly targeted in the four cited Umuco articles, the journalists’ action must have been much welcome. The scribes had helped initiate a process to deal with their very own, thus absolving the offended parties of accusations that they were witch-hunting the vernacular newspaper and its boss.

Although I had never agreed to the idea that certain media outlets were collaborating with enemies of the state – especially since most governments use that tool to muzzle the freedom of the press – the Umuco case seemed to vindicate Government officials who, for some time now, have linked some sections of the local media to enemy forces.

Now, the HCP has granted journalists’ demands by withdrawing Bizumuremyi’s  press card and requesting the new Information Minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, to petition competent authorities to withdraw Umuco’s operating license for a period of one year.

It is not the first time the media regulatory body- composed of nine board members drawn from various areas; three from private press, three representing the Government, two representing the civil society and one from the public press – has recommended banning a newspaper.

The previous three requests involved the State-owned Imvaho, Umuseso (both in 2005) and Umurabyo (2006) did not result in the closure or suspension of the said publications, because the matters were largely settled by courts.

The refusal by Mushikiwabo’s predecessor Prof. Laurent Nkusi, to hand a three-month ban on Imvaho and four months suspension for Umuseso over alleged defamation instead resulted in the resignation of the then HCP President, Privat Rutazibwa.

Both cases were more controversial compared to the one of Umurabyo whose editor, Agnes Nkusi Uwimana, herself owned up to the charges related to ethnic divisionism which subsequently landed her a one-year prison term. Uwimana has since completed her sentence. The HCP well knows the fate of their previous recommendations to the ministry, and besides, the Umuco case is by far clearer to any sober mind that it breached the laws.

Because Nkusi had always refrained from intervening in media wars does not mean that Mushikiwabo will maintain the status quo. At the same time, Police have initiated a judicial process likely to result in a court battle between Umuco and the Prosecution.
But the likelihood of such a confrontation is dwindling by the day because Bizumuremyi is nowhere to be found and could most probably have skipped the country.

Will Mushikiwabo set a precedent? That is what is on many people’s lips, especially journalists.

However, considering that some of the articles in question, particularly the one about President Kagame, are themselves unprecedented probably anywhere in recent history, one is tempted to believe that Mushikiwabo will have to start off her ministerial duties with a tough decision – breaking the practice of her predecessor, or more bluntly, recommending to relevant authorities to suspend Umuco for one year as requested by the press council.

The law is not clear as to who the “relevant authorities” are in this case, but going by the Weekly Post experience, Mushikiwabo can herself take full responsibility and withdraw the paper’s license until further notice. She also has the option of referring the matter to cabinet, or to consult with the Attorney General, in this case, the Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama.

Whatever option she employs and have the publication suspended, such a decision by the Government will provide an expected opportunity for its opportunist critics an                              d enemies to shout about lack of press freedom in the country. But Rwandans would at least find consolation in the fact that evil-minded propagandists and Genocide revisionists would not freely continue to pollute people’s minds – at least through the media – with articles that liken anti-Genocide and liberation heroes as revered as Kagame and the Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF) with international repute for discipline – to all-time worst genocider Adolf Hitler and his dreaded Nazi forces, responsible for the death of over six million Jews.

“We have witnessed cases of journalists and media houses crossing their professional boundaries before, but this particular article (on Kagame) is unprecedented anywhere,” said a Kigali-based legal specialist.

And going by what Mushikiwabo has been telling journalists and media organs during her ongoing visits to media organizations, it is clear that she is willing to take the bull by the horns. She is aware that the sector she has entered is not one for a dull mind, and therefore her job is not a bed of roses.

While she hopes to take local journalists back to the drawing board with an aim of reaching a consensus among media practitioners – at least on the basic values and standards of journalism – the new Information minister says she’s ready to rise to the occasion even during such tough times.

“I know there are many challenges but I am also ready,” that is what she told The New Times on Monday when asked how she felt about the state of the Rwandan media, two weeks after her appointment. “These problems actually motivate me. I have high hopes that, together, we will make it.”

She says news is just another commercial product that people should transact with extreme care. “Why should you expect people to buy your rotten tomatoes?” she asked on two separate visits to the Rwanda Journalists Association and Press House offices (last week) and the HCP offices on Monday.

But all said and done, the journalists’ action has sent one clear message across: President Kagame is not anywhere near to facing any of the four ‘Bizumuremyi options’.
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