Post from Rwanda: On freedom of the press

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have just released their 2010 report ranking countries on press freedom. Rwanda ranked 169 out of 178. In this election year, they dropped 12 places from last year, making them the third lowest African country on the list.

Unsurprisingly, the government isn’t happy. The Information Minister has labeled the report as ‘biased and irresponsible’, declaring that it ‘distorts the reality in Rwanda’ and that the results are ’based on unverified and grossly distorted perceptions of the political situation’.

But it is the case that two leading independent publications were shut down this year. The six-month suspension happened to coincide with the election campaign. One of these publications, Umuvugizi, saw the murder of its deputy editor in Kigali. It is known that he was compiling a report on the shooting of a Rwandan General in South Africa at the time; the government claims his death was reprisal for crimes he committed. Journalists have claimed a climate of terror surrounding the election campaign this year: a number have reported violent threats, three have been jailed and many are leaving the country. The former editor of the second suspended journal, Didas Gasana, is currently living in self imposed exile in Uganda for fear of his safety.

The government says that the two journals were publishing ethnically divisive content. Given the role that the media played in inciting its citizens to genocide in 1994 (the radio at the time called its people to ‘do their work’ by destroying the Tutsi ‘cockroaches’), one could understand this might be something the government’s skittish about. Gasana denies this. He rejects the government’s claim that his journal was unprofessional. ‘Professional journalists to the government are journalists who write what they want. If you write something that they don’t, they brand you unprofessional … the government even brands the BBC as unprofessional and biased,’ Gasana said in an interview with the Ugandan magazine the Independent. He also counters the government’s claim that his journal was breaching media law by describing the newly passed law as ‘draconian’.

I met a public health professional working in the south west of Rwanda whose colleagues described a knock on the door they received at one in the morning on the day of the election. Authorities were making their way through small villages, directing people to make their way down to the polling stations so that when the journalists arrived to view the turnout, photos would show hordes of supporters there to vote for Kagame. ‘It’s not like these people wouldn’t have voted for Kagame otherwise; they may well have. But to drag people from their beds like that…’ she trailed off. She was torn about Kagame. ‘He’s brought the country so far in such a short amount of time.’ But she, like Gasana and like RSF, may well wonder what he has to hide in silencing the press.

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