KIGALI - The Rwandan media fraternity has, in an unprecedented move, resolved to sue a local newspaper over publishing "highly slanderous and unfounded articles defaming" President Paul Kagame and other national leaders, and equating the President and the Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF) to Adolph Hitler and Nazis, respectively.
In a crisis consultative meeting between members of the Rwanda Media Ethics Commission (RMEC), media house owners and practitioners, journalists also asked the High Council of the Press (HCP) to withdraw its press card from the vernacular newspaper’s owner-cum-reporter Bonaventure Bizumuremyi and to request the line ministry to ban the paper for a year.
‘(Journalists) have condemned and disassociated themselves from articles published in Umuco newspaper edition number 45,’ a statement signed by the commission president, Louis Kamanzi (Radio Flash), states.
In a highly charged meeting held at the Press House in Remera, journalists condemned Umuco’s "unprofessional levels" accusing it of dragging the President’s credibility and that of the RDF in mud by likening them to Hitler and the Nazis, known internationally for the genocide of six million Jews.
They also said that by equating Kagame to Germany’s Hitler, the author and the publication were denying the 1994 Genocide, which was stopped by then rebels of the Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA ) under Kagame’s leadership.
The commission singled out four articles published in Umuco’s March 12-27, 2008 edition citing laws that were violated by the publication.
The most "vilifying" article cited was in the edition’s headline piece in which the writer, Jason Mukasa, based on recent indictments issued by a Spanish judge against forty RDF officers, claimed that Kagame was trapped between life and death, and offered options to the Head of State, one of them being "to commit" suicide.
The other options the writer gave Kagame "to flee the country, cling to power until death, or to present himself before the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC).
The article, according to analysts, is full of abusive, demeaning and insulting language, largely buried inside the strong Kinyarwanda language used in the two-page opinion piece in the bi-monthly paper.
"He (Bizumuremyi) has taken the lives of Rwandans for granted. The story has had more destructive impact because it has created panic and speculation among the population. As a result, some people have told me that they were contemplating fleeing the country. These articles are meant to terrorise citizens by depicting a picture that the country is headed for collapse," said a seemingly perplexed Alex Rutareka (City Radio).
The Editor-in-Chief of Imvaho newspaper, Frank Ndamage, compared the publication to the media of 1993 and early ’94, which sowed hatred among the masses and later incited one section of the society to kill their neighbours.
"This is just a replica of Kangura (newspaper) and RTLM (radio station)," he said in reference to two pre-Genocide media outlets, which played a central role in the death of one million Rwandans, and whose leaders have since been convicted and sentenced by the Tanzania-based International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).
Other articles the media fraternity is highly critical of in Umuco are claims that a clique allegedly led by Gen. Jack Nziza ‘continues to set Kigali City on fire’ and that Rwanda is a lawless country.
And in an editorial on the recent Cabinet reshuffle in the same edition, the paper alleges that Tusti state ministers are appointed to closely monitor the activities of their more senior Hutu ministers, an allegation journalists dismissed calling it sectarian, and intended to create divisions within the Cabinet, and to rekindle hate among Rwandans.
"That is a criminal offence punishable under the laws of our country. It is something no one, at least those with good intentions, should fail to see the underlying motives of this newspaper," one journalist shouted.
RMEC members told journalists that they tried to contact Bizumuremyi to discuss the matter with him, but he instead hanged up on the caller after he was told that the commission wanted a word with him. There were also suggestions that most of the articles in the newspaper targeting the State and the President are actually authored by people belonging to negative forces outside the country, and only use pseudo names as bylines.
Kamanzi said the ethics commission tried to look for Mukasa –the purported author of the article putting Kagame and Hitler in the same basket – but in vain, before the HCP confirmed that the name did not feature in its data bank.
"That is far well beyond the boundaries of a journalist," Jean Bosco Gatete, the Chief Editor of Umurinzi newspaper, said.
But while the editors of Umuvugizi and Rimeg (publisher of Umuseso and Newsline) newspapers, Bosco Gasasira and Charles Kabonero, respectively, say they don’t share opinion with the Kagame-Hitler article author, they insist that journalists should have stopped at condemning the newspaper but not pursuing a legal action and specific penalties they wanted the press council or the Information ministry to sanction. "I don’t agree with him but I respect his opinion. As journalists we should have condemned the articles and leave the rest to the judiciary," Kabonero said yesterday.
On his part, Gasasira blamed Umuco for likening Kagame and Hitler’s "personalities considering the good things Kagame has done and the grave crimes Hitler is remembered for."
"My opinion is different from his (Bizumuremyi’s) probably because of the difference in our reasoning capacity, but what we should understand is that all the nine million Rwandans don’t have the same opinion because we all have different backgrounds," Gasasira said.
It was not possible to get a comment from Bizumuremyi as his cell phone was switched off by press time.
Meanwhile, Patrice Mulama, the Executive Secretary of the High Council of the Press, said the council had not officially received the journalists’ request but said the case of Umuco was on the agenda of the council’s meeting on Friday.
"What I can tell you now is that the Council is scheduled to meet on Friday and determine the way forward," he said on phone last evening.