Rwanda has been on the receiving end of fake news for a long time and that seemed not to matter. It only became important when its creators began to feel its effects.
That’s part of what President Paul Kagame told journalists at a news conference in Kigali last Friday, November 8. In the last three years the term ‘fake news’ has come into everyday discourse, courtesy of United States President Donald Trump.
Fake news, as President Kagame said, is not new to Rwandans. We are used to seeing outsiders create for us an unfamiliar world and an alternative narrative to go with it.
This trend has been growing since 1994 and seems to be aimed at countering or obscuring the real story of the country.
We will cite a few recent cases of false reporting, distorted analysis, unsubstantiated claims, or outright lies.
The Financial Times on August 13 this year carried a story claiming the government of Rwanda routinely manipulates economic statistics to make the country appear to be doing better than it actually is. In other words, the government are cheats; don’t believe anything they tell you.
On October 29 the same newspaper had another story about the government’s alleged spying on its exiled citizens, all of them of little importance except for their role in the genocide against the Tutsi, using sophisticated Israel technology.
The message is that Rwanda is in the habit of eavesdropping on you and that might put you in grave danger. It is a very dangerous government.
Canadian media had similar claims. It had stories of a Rwandan student in Canada claiming the government recruited her to spy for it.
The Economist ran a story seven days to the 25th commemoration of the genocide against the Tutsi that on the surface appeared to examine the process of healing in the country after twenty five years, but ended up denying that any healing has taken place and heaping blame on President Kagame for all manner of ills.
Just last week, the Telegraph published an opinion piece by the daughter of a soldier convicted and sentenced for crimes he committed claiming that her father has been treated unjustly and seeking intervention by the British government to have him released.
Closer to home, The New Vision newspaper and the Daily Monitor, especially since the souring of relations with Uganda, carry stories about supposed happenings in Rwanda that have never occurred.
This sort of fake news is not random. There is a pattern to it that shows it is deliberate and serves a specific purpose, and at the same time makes it predictable. That it all happens at key moments in the country’s calendar or cannot be a coincidence.
For instance, at the time of presidential elections, we can expect an avalanche of fake news, the resurrection of old, discredited stories, and incredible claims of every sort.
The period leading up to the commemoration of the genocide against the Tutsi is another occasion for a barrage of attacks on the leadership of Rwanda. At this time stories of double genocide or those that deny that it ever took place get wide coverage.
In a pseudo-scientific way, authors of these fake stories use fictitious figures about the supposed composition of Rwanda’s population to support their false claims. Ironically, they are the same people who peddle accusations of manipulation of statistics.
Any time Rwanda is about to host a major continental or world event, you can be sure of more bombardment of negative and often fake stories about the country.
We have already seen stories with a link to the hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of State and Government Meeting (CHOGM) in June next year. The Telegraph opinion piece is one of them. In the coming days, we can expect a rerun of stories of ten years ago that sought to prevent Rwanda joining the Commonwealth.
You can also be certain that there will be a smear campaign when a Rwandan is in the running for a top post in an international organisation. That nearly always involves putting out untrue stories.
We can now add another one: when attempts to destabilise the country and those behind them have been exposed, and the forces of destabilisation have been pushed to the wall, there will be a flurry of fake news. A lot of that is evident in the Ugandan media today.
Just as predictable are the reasons for creating these alternative narratives, which is why we have learnt to live with them.
Some, for example, are designed to distract and throw Rwandans off track by keeping them bogged down in unnecessary controversy, or even diverting resources.
Others aim to create doubts about Rwanda’s real achievements in the minds of foreigners, but more insidiously in the minds of Rwandans as well. This is supposed to put the country on the defensive and put brakes on its momentum.
In other instances, the intention is to sabotage the country’s economy by urging visitors to stay away and also preventing international conferences from being hosted here. This form of sabotage also targets development cooperation.
Then there are others who simply cannot live with the idea that Rwanda can be successful without their permission or input. They have already decreed that without their imprimatur, it must fail and anything to the contrary is just unacceptable.
So, yes, we are used to false creations, but that doesn’t mean that we like or accept them. We simply let those who want to create their alternative universe be, as long as they do not impose it on us, of course. We are content to live in our real world.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.