An interview aired on Voice of America featuring Cassien Ntamuhanga, a Rwandan convict who escaped International Mpanga prison in October last year, has sparked angry reactions from many Rwandans.
Ntamuhanga was in 2015 sentenced to 25 years after he was found guilty of multiple crimes, including formation of a criminal gang, conspiracy against the established government, and complicity in a terrorist act.
He had been charged alongside disgraced singer Kizito Mihigo and Jean-Paul Dukuzumuremyi, a former soldier.
The manhunt has been ongoing and for VOA to give a platform to Ntamuhanga who boasted about his “freedom”, has sparked questions of professionalism and impartiality. The broadcast was in Kinyarwanda.
Most people were irked by the fact that VOA granted a wanted convict - who had broken out of prison - the platform to speak without any effort to give the audience the true representation of the case.
They argued that VOA failed in its social responsibility by airing an interview of a convict without any attempt to balance the narrative by also talking to sources familiar with the case.
Others called for the government to consider avenues to compel the media outlet to reveal what they know about Ntamuhanga, his whereabouts, and his escape.
Efforts to get a comment from VOA were futile by press time.
Among those interviewed by The New Times on the subject is Patrick Byamungu, a city businessman, who said that by airing the interview, VOA had given mileage to someone who ought to be in jail for serious crimes.
“This can be interpreted as an outright support to enemies of the state or advancing their causes,” Byamungu said.
Emmanuel Mugisha, the Rwanda Media Council (RMC) Executive Secretary told The New Times that their code of ethics does not have provisions on how to handle an instance of airing comments of a prisoner or escaped convict.
He, however, said that one can look in the context of social responsibility of the media which is stipulated under article 3 of code of ethics.
“The journalist and any other media professional shall keep in mind their social responsibility. They shall, therefore, distribute or publish only information for which they have established the origin, veracity, and accuracy. They shall abstain or express necessary reservations in required professional forms for any doubt however slight it may be,” the article reads.
However, RMC which handles complaints related to ethical standards of media houses is unable to follow up on the case as the interview was carried out by an American based journalist, Thomas Kamirindi.
The jurisdiction of RMC - the media self-regulatory body - is limited to within Rwanda.
Yann Gwett, a journalism lecturer at the University of Rwanda told The New Times that the issue can be considered on legal grounds, owing to the fact that the subject broke out of prison.
“Though it is debatable on whether it is ethical to air such content, I personally would not air it considering that it is a person who escaped from prison after being sentenced,” Gwett said.
He added that while some argue that a journalist’s role is to inform the audience, it’s also important to consider who they grant such a platform.
According to media experts, the fundamental issue in making the judgment on whether to interview convicts has a lot to do with victims.
A lawyer with one of Kigali’s top firms said that, going forward, the judicial authorities should ask the media organization to assist in pursuing Ntamuhanga considering that he escaped from prison.
The spokesperson of Rwanda Correctional Services, SIP Hillary Sengabo, told The New Times that they are determined to recapture the escaped convict and are looking to work with anyone with information about his whereabouts.
The VOA is a US government-funded radio station established in 1942. According to its charter, VOA mission is to broadcast “accurate, balanced, and comprehensive news and information to an international audience."
However, according to renowned researcher Tom Ndahiro, the VOA Kinyarwanda broadcast has on several occasions fallen short of its mission.
He said that by keenly listening to the segment, one can easily pick a condoning tone in the interviewer as if to normalise a jailbreak.
“Considering that the person being interviewed had been charged and convicted for crimes including a terror attack, it’s shocking that the nature of the interview makes it seem as if breaking from jail is a heroic action,” he said.
Ndahiro added that the interview raised questions on the professionalism of the outlet and the journalist involved, especially for giving somewhat celebrity status to a convict.
He observed that this is not the first time that VOA Kinyarwanda has aired controversial content, noting that the outlet has previously broadcast content that amounts to Genocide denial.
Ndahiro added that such actions should not go unchecked and someone should be held responsible.