On 14th July 2010 Reporters Without Borders called on the European Union and other donors to suspend financial support for what it labeled ‘Rwanda’s “repressive” regime ahead of next month’s presidential polls’ while unsubstantially alleging that ‘Rwanda’s government, led by President Paul Kagame, was responsible for “a series of grave press freedom violations”.
The group argues that Rwanda’s regime is “repressive” because, among other things, it has ‘arrested and detained journalists, closed Rwanda’s two ‘leading independent’ newspapers for six months, blocked access to another publication’s website and arrested journalist Agnes Uwimana on July 8 after she allegedly published “sensitive” articles about the murder of Umuvugizi newspaper editor Jean-Leonard Rugambage.
For anyone acquainted with news about Rwanda, the so-called Media Rights group’s insensitive appeal came without surprise. Indeed, for at least the last decade, the group has been recycling false accusations against Rwanda’s leadership as if it has bestowed itself the mission of undermining the Rwandan’s own relentless efforts to reconstruct a country that had fallen into abyss sixteen years ago, and under the very eyes of the same self-righteous groups.
When, in April 2010, the Media High Council, Rwanda’s media regulatory body, suspended Umuseso and Umuvugizi newspapers, Reporters Without Borders already claimed that “This decision clearly aims to gag Rwanda’s main sources of independent news in the run-up to the August 2010 presidential election. It suppresses all critical journalism and deprives Rwandans of an alternative to the state newspapers”.
Without any supporting argument, the group unilaterally decrees that the government does so in ensuring that the election campaign will be tightly controlled and monolithic.
The Rwanda Journalists Association’s President, Gaspard Safari later trashed the France-based media watchdog’s reports, on Rwanda as baseless and defaming. He stated that the watchdog has been compiling reports without consulting or interviewing any journalist in Rwanda, its activity is a mockery to the ethics of professional journalism and a deliberate move to undermine Rwanda’s development process.
“In the last sixteen years, I have not witnessed any RSF media project or programme in Rwanda, yet they claim to foster media development in Africa.
They don’t send their researchers to Rwanda to verify their opinions but rather, they sit calmly in their newsrooms and report hearsay as truth,” Safari said.
And indeed, despite the numerous evidences and explanations provided by the Media High Council in a protest response to the Media Rights body, the later persists and signs. President Kagame has been on the Reporters Without Borders list of “Predators of Press Freedom” for several years and this must remain so, no matter what!
As stated in the response, 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.
The regulatory body goes on to highlight how the decision to suspend the newspapers was guided by and done in accordance with Rwanda’s 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, an institution engendered from the country’s constitution, and the refusal to acquire press cards which are mandatory documents that - according to the Media Law - identify a journalist in Rwanda.
We couldn’t agree more with the response’s conclusion note that for RSF, the aim could be much bigger than supporting unethical journalism but rather to make the world believe their long time agenda of labelling the Rwanda government predator of the press, despite all the achievements that the Rwandan people are proud of.
The other statement that the Rwanda’s regime “arrested journalist Agnes Uwimana on July 8 after she allegedly published “sensitive” articles about the murder of Umuvugizi newspaper editor Jean-Leonard Rugambage is also characteristic of the group’s obviously ill intended distortions of otherwise verifiable facts.
As a matter of facts, the editor of the Kinyarwanda bi-monthly Umurabyo was arrested on charges related to sedition, publishing material defamatory to the person of the President, inciting public disorder, ethnic “divisionism” as well as promoting the genocide ideology. And according to Article 14 of the law that establishes the police force states that the force has a mandate to ensure that the country’s laws are enforced.
Police has the powers to prevent, investigate or press charges on anyone suspected of breaking the country’s laws. One should remember that the controversial editor spent about a year in jail in 2007 for Genocide ideology after she was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for these charges. A year later, she was pardoned after she pleaded for leniency and acknowledged her mistakes.
One would have thought that she has learnt her lesson, but no. According to Police spokesman, “the arrest came after it became evident that through the publications in issues nos. 21, 23, 28 and 29 of Umurabyo newspaper, that they had had committed serious criminal offences that breached several laws, and hence the need to detain them”.
Thus, as earlier stated, the smearing campaign against the government of Rwanda is not new and therefore is no more a surprise; instead, everybody well conversant with the freedom of press/media in Rwanda would ask what is wrong with the international media watch dog.
As James Munyaneza, the First Vice President of Rwanda Journalists Association (ARJ) put it in a May 12 article in The New Times, “In the minds of Rwandans, there are many unanswered questions with regard to RSF and CPJ.
Do these organizations really stand for their publicly declared mission of promoting and advocating for press freedom? On whose payroll are RSF and CPJ officials since they seem to pursue an imperialistic and geo-political agenda in the same way as some western governments?
And if they were to stand for anything near press freedom and media development, why wouldn’t they want to work hand in hand with local media associations to ‘free’ Rwandan press?
So far, Media freedom in Rwanda has shown a zealous improvement for the last 16 years. As example, there are 13 private FM radio stations and 5 public radio stations compared to one public radio station in 1994.
As for the newspapers, there are 44 private newspapers and 02 public newspapers. The international media watchdog (RSF) is biased when it bases on the suspension of two tabloids of Umuseso and Umuvugizi and the arrest of the Umurabyo Chief Editor – Uwimana, to conclude that there is no freedom of press in the country.
Does it mean that the remaining 42 private newspapers mean nothing to RSF or the media watch dog is only interested in those newspapers that spread hate and divisive campaigns?
Other item that portrays the improvement in the field includes the setting up of a school of journalism in Kigali so that unprofessional journalists both public and private access this facility moreover at government sponsorship.
The law regulating media has been made as lenient as possible to promote freedom of press and give room for the easy setting up of a media house. Specifically, the law requires media practitioners to be qualified in the field but again leaves a room for training in a period of 5 years for the current unqualified journalists already in the profession.
Particularly, President Kagame himself (whom RSF shamelessly regularly describes as the predator of the press) has shown his consistent support to the freedom of the media in his monthly Presidential press conferences.
Of course for RSF, a live press conference where all media houses are invited, and journalists pose any questions is no measure of freedom of the press.
The recent establishment of Rwanda Press Centre is another testimony that the government of Rwanda is interested in the freedom of media. This center is a fully equipped press centre which will facilitate both local and international journalists to effectively monitor what is taking place in the country.
We can only endorse James’ conclusion that “regardless of what the so-called media watchdogs say, however, the Rwandan media fraternity will continue to push for media-friendly laws and practices.
For instance, Rwandan journalists continue to urge the Government to decriminalize libel and defamation. Otherwise, RSF should stop pretending that they are more committed to our own freedom more than ourselves”.