In the wake of the brutal beating and detention of ‘The New Times’ photographer George Barya, three other journalists at the paper came forward with stories of unwarranted physical confrontations between reporters and police officers.
Fellow photographer John Mbanda said what happened to Barya on Tuesday was by no means an isolated incident. Mbanda said he had an unprovoked, physical confrontation with police outside a Kigali courtroom in May.
“Sometimes they don’t know what laws apply,” he said of the police. “It’s as if they’re ignorant of the law.”
Mbanda was trying to get a picture of Tito Migabo, a government official who was then on trial for corruption. When Migabo came out of the courtroom, Mbanda readied his camera, only to have Migabo attack him and try to snatch his equipment.
Police intervened, but to Mbanda’s great surprise, they took Migabo’s side. “Instead of the police coming to my rescue, they started harassing me. They grabbed me here, like this,” said Mbanda, making a choking motion around his neck.
“One of them held me by the arm, and [Migabo] was able to push the button on my camera and delete the picture,” said Mbanda, who maintains that he had all the proper credentials and had identified himself as a journalist.
Mbanda says he was even once mistreated right outside a police station, where an officer violently tried to snatch his camera before a more senior policeman intervened.
Such confrontations between reporters and police have not been limited to Kigali. Just ask Daniel Sabiiti, who works for this newspaper’s Kamonyi bureau. He and Contact FM reporter Jean-Pierre Twizeyeyezu were recently covering a Gacaca trial in Southern Province.
Sabiiti said that before he had even taken any pictures or done any interviews, police attempted to confiscate his identification. When he refused, he and Twizeyeyezu were arrested and hauled off to jail, even though they had identified themselves as journalists to the court.
“They searched me and took my phone, camera, and digital recorder,” he said. “We should have been released immediately, but they detained us for eight hours.”
Sabiiti and Twizeyeyezu said they were humiliated by the jail guards. “When we asked to go and take a pee, we had to be escorted with guns. That was a real embarrassment.”
Before they could leave the station, police had the reporters sign a statement saying that they had not been harassed or embarrassed, and that they had been released under the mercy of the station.
Then the officers dropped the reporters off in the middle of a country road in the dead of night. “We walked four kilometres to get back,” said Sabiiti. As in Mbanda’s case, the two reporters in Southern Province had made it clear to authorities that they were working journalists.
Inspector Willy Higiro, the police spokesperson, said the reporters’ claims of violence and harassment were “exaggerated.”
“If they were assaulted, then they can complain,” he said. “And if a policeman makes a mistake, he will be prosecuted.”
Higiro said policemen must do their job, regardless of who is committing the crimes. “Journalists often believe they are above the law,” he added.
But just like Mbanda and Sabiiti, a New Times freelance journalist, Magnus Mazimpaka, said he has been assaulted by police, even despite having his credentials visible and following all the rules.
In fact, Mazimpaka said he’s had at least three separate physical confrontations with police, and the number of times he’s been threatened by police is too numerous to count. In one incident, Mazimpaka took a picture of a man being dragged on his back by police after he was caught riding his bike on a road meant for a procession of top government officials.
“I took a picture, and the police grabbed me, too, and I said ‘The way you’re holding the guy, that’s a news picture,’ but they packed me up into a truck and detained me.”
Mazimpaka said the police then released him, but without signing any documents. “They never signed that I’m innocent,” he said.
But Higiro maintains that the police do not have problems with discipline and insists that if any journalists have had problems with police, it’s because they were in the wrong.
He insisted that Barya’s version of the facts was overblown. As for Sabiiti and Twizeyeyezu, he insisted they had misrepresented themselves.
“They were taking pictures without permission,” he said.
But the journalists maintain that the problems of discipline they point to are serious and real. They said police and journalists are treated with a double standard.
“The entire country condemns journalists for not being trained or experienced, but the police are the worst guys here. They know nothing about dealing with the press,” Mazimpaka argued.