MHC Responds to RSF and CPJ on Umuvugizi and Umuseso Suspension

The Media High Council (MHC), dismisses the unfounded statements from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters without Borders (RSF) relating to the recent suspension of two weekly newspapers, Umuseso and Umuvugizi.

The Media High Council (MHC), dismisses the unfounded statements from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters without Borders (RSF) relating to the recent suspension of two weekly newspapers, Umuseso and Umuvugizi.

The two media watchdogs allege that the MHC violated the law by handing down the six months suspension to the two newspapers. Quoting article 83 of the Media Law and an anonymous Kigali lawyer - a habit they share with the newspapers they are defending - RSF argues that “the council can only order a newspaper’s temporary or permanent closure if it has previously found it guilty of the same offence, which is not the case with either of the two publications.”

It is unfortunate, that organisations that claim to be internationally reputable and credible can base their conclusions on sentiments and hearsay rather than facts and evidence in the name of defence of media freedom.

First of all, RSF needs to be informed that the MHC has no powers to order permanent closure of any media organ. That can only be done by competent courts of law as provided for under article 84 of the media law.

Secondly, it is not the first time the MHC has found these tabloids guilty of violating the Media Law and professional code of ethics including serious offences.

Indeed, as MHC media monitoring reports can show, these newspapers were summoned, warned, reprimanded and in some cases decisions for their suspension taken, for Umuseso, since 2004 and 2008 for Umuvugizi.

These decisions were based on complaints from the public and MHC’s daily monitoring findings which revealed that on several occasions these newspapers published false, sensational and inciting material aimed at creating a sense of fear amongst the Rwandan people, polarizing the national security organs, insulting, slandering, defaming innocent individuals and interfering in other people’s private lives without good reason.

Specifically, CPJ and RSF should be reminded that in 2004 after Umuseso’s refusal to accept mistakes, apologize and correct the wrong impression they had created as a result of articles  published in its issue No. 186 of August 01-07, 2004 and following a public hearing of august 18, 2004 the MHC recommended the suspension of Umuseso for a 4 months period.

Although the suspension was not enforced by relevant organs, the paper was later found guilty of the same offences MHC had observed and sentenced the editor of the paper to a one year suspended prison term and Rwf 1m fine.

Also, in 2009 the MHC decided to advise the government to suspend the paper for a period of 3 months following a public hearing and refusal to comply with multiple warnings from the Council for violation of the Law and professional ethics.  

Similarly, following a thorough analysis of certain publications of Umuvugizi newspaper between 2006 and 2008, the MHC exposed persistent violations of the law and professional ethics by this paper, on March 13, 2009, when it summoned the owner of this newspaper.

After being showed all legal and ethical violations, the newspaper management was warned of the consequences if they did not respect the Law.

The same year, 2009, after receiving multiple complaints from some members of the public concerning this newspaper’s stories, the MHC sought written explanations and evidence from the management of Umuvugizi newspaper.

The paper’s management, however, defied the MHC and refused not only to provide the explanations but to also respond to the MHC’s letter.

Consequently, in a letter dated September 2, 2009, the MHC issued a last warning, and also ordered Umuvugizi management to apologize and correct their mistakes in the next issues.

The above directive was not only ignored by Umuvugizi management but the legal and ethical violations also increased in 2010. This newspaper’s most recent publications have evidently disregarded the Law.

In addition to alleging an unsubstantiated coup d’etat, they called upon some military officers to desert the army, apparently, because their promotions have been delayed, according to Umuvugizi newspaper “they can do better in civilian life”.

Feeding well within Umuseso’s call for the use of violence to change the governance and leadership of this country, since according to them, all peaceful means of bringing change have been exhausted, the two newspapers had crossed the line.

In fact, Umuseso goes further to allege that even if Kagame cannot admit openly, he lives in fear of being overthrown anytime and that he is incapable of protecting the nation from “the darkness which we are otherwise getting closer and closer to by the day.”

These statements and many others published by the two newspapers violate the Media Law and other penal laws and constitute press offences.  

As an institution responsible for ensuring respect of the law and professional ethics and protecting the public for whom media content is intended, the MHC could not stand by and watch any more.

While we believe in and advocate for media freedom, we recognise that freedoms come with responsibility and irresponsible media like that - seemingly advocated by these media watchdogs - instigated the 1994 genocide against Tutsi in our country.

Never again should any such media and journalism be tolerated and later on supported. Thus far, any well intentioned person can now tell that this was beyond mere recidivism required by the law.

Therefore, the MHC wishes to state unequivocally that the process of taking this decision was guided by and done in accordance with the Media Law, specifically articles 13 (5), 73, 83 and 84. For these newspapers, however, violation of the Law goes beyond the content of their publications to disrespecting the authority of the MHC and refusal to acquire press cards which are mandatory documents that - according to the Media Law - identify a journalist in Rwanda.

As highlighted above, the management of the two newspapers on a number of occasions have refused to respond to calls for written explanations or not implemented MHC decisions yet this organ derives its authority from the Law. Freedom to act illegally must not be condoned by anybody.      

In addition, contrary to the allegations made by these organisations, the MHC management and board wish to state it categorically that this institution is independent both in theory (the constitution) and practice (decision making). As such, the institution “takes no orders from any highest level of government,” as stated by RSF.

We find this cheap and smear campaign clearly intended to discredit the independence and impartiality of the MHC.

This independence can also be confirmed from the composition of the board of the MHC which is the highest decision making organ. The board is comprised of independent-minded individuals who are professional and persons of integrity.

They include 2 representatives of the private media, 1 representative of the private sector, 1 representative of the civil society, 1 representative of the public media and 2 representatives of the central government.

These organisations have also tagged their analysis of the suspension of the two tabloids to the Presidential elections scheduled in the third quarter of this year.

However, these allegations leave many questions unanswered. Firstly, they do not tell their readers whether in other societies towards or during Presidential elections violation of the law and ethical standards is not sanctioned.

Secondly, they do not tell us whether it is the Media High Council or government or any other institution with interest in influencing both the process and the outcome of the elections that advised Umuseso and Umuvugizi editors to publish such material probably with the intention of suspending them.

Lastly, they intentionally do not tell us why these newspapers have been sanctioned before by both the MHC and the courts of law for similar or related charges yet there were no elections to be “independently” covered.

This kind of allegation is deliberately intended at misleading the international community, diverting them from the real problem of unprofessional practices within the Rwandan media.

These practices have indeed been tolerated for so long but instead of these people (Umuseso and Umuvugi so called journalists) learning by doing and striving for excellence, they seem to learn nothing and forget the history of the Rwandan media.

They could not even learn from the numerous capacity building initiatives in the country, because they behave like superstars who know it all and thus could not participate.

For RSF, the aim could be much bigger than supporting unethical journalism; to make the world believe their long time agenda of labelling the Rwanda government predator of the press, despite all the achievements that Rwandan people are proud of.

The MHC reiterates its commitment to protect freedom of the press, improve professional standards of Rwanda’s media and protect innocent citizens from harmful propaganda published or broadcast as clearly stated in its mandate.

The author is the
Executive Secretary of the Media High Council