Rwanda : Appalling relations between the RPF governement and independent media (07.08.08)
Appalling relations persisted between the government and a section of the independent press, especially the more highly critical publications. The strength of government hostility pushed some newspapers into closure. Meanwhile journalist Tatiana Mukakibibi was finally released ... after 11 years in custody.
Even though the government denies it, Rwanda’s independent press is forced to live under relentless harassment from the highest levels of the state. President Paul Kagame turned on Emmanuel Niyonteze, a journalist on the bi-monthly Umuseso, who questioned him at a press conference at the start of the year about his rapprochement with Ivorian president, Laurent Gbagbo. The state-run press also displayed antagonism towards some media, including the US-run public Voice of America (VOA). One journalist on state-owned weekly Imvaho Nshya, even called at a 2 February press conference for the closure of VOA, accused of favouring the Rwandan opposition. The government in June 2006 expelled without explanation the correspondent for French public Radio France Internationale (RFI), Sonia Rolley, then in November ordered the closure of its transmitter after breaking off diplomatic relations with Paris.
A reviled newspaper
A few months later, pressure on the government’s bête noire Umuseso, was ratcheted up to such an extent - repeated threats of prosecution against the press group which owns the paper and government smears against its journalists - that it closed all its publications. Several minister and the army and police spokesmen made very aggressive statements against the privately-owned press in a programme broadcast on 9 September 2007 by state-run Radio Rwanda and public Télévision rwandaise (TVR). The interior minister announced that the authorities were going to take “steps” against journalists who were trying to “overthrow” the government. He said it was the duty of the police to arrest and detain any journalist who published an official document until they divulged its source, who would in their turn be punished. It was an obvious allusion to Umuseso, which had recently carried a classified defence ministry document.
An example of this dreadful climate was the arrest and accusation of rape against the newspaper’s editor Gérard Manzi in what appeared to be a frame-up. Manzi was arrested at a bus station in the evening of 22 August, while on his way home after a drink with friends, in the company of a young girl, whom to his concern, he had found alone there just a few moments beforehand. At the police station he was accused of rape, which he denied and asked for the alleged victim to be produced, which police refused to do, saying they no longer knew where she was. He was released one week later, after his lawyer produced witnesses backing up his alibi.
As well as Umuseso, all the small-scale newspapers appearing in Kigali also suffered harassment. Jean-Bosco Gasasira, publisher of the independent bi-weekly Umuvugizi, was beaten up by thugs at his home on 9 February and was admitted to King Faisal hospital in a critical condition and lay in a coma until 13 February. Gasasira had been subjected to intimidating phone calls since August 2006 and was followed by military intelligence officers. “I received calls from private numbers threatening to beat me to death,” he told Reporters Without Borders. He had refused to provide the authorities with information about the whereabouts of Bonaventure Bizumuremyi, editor of the privately-owned weekly Umuco, in hiding after coming in for repeated threats himself. In the face of these accusations, the intelligence services accused Umuco and other similar papers of looking for “cheap publicity”. The authorities also criticised the newspaper Umuvugizi for condemning, along with Umuco and Umuseso, cronyism on the part of the economy and finance minister, James Musoni.
The after-effects of the genocide
The 1994 genocide against the Tutsis left such a mark on Rwandan society that any criticism of the government is swiftly repressed, sometimes brutally. Such was the case when Agnès Nkusi Uwimana, editor of the privately-owned bi-monthly Umurabyo, one of the few critical publications in Kigali, was arrested on 12 January and accused of “creating division”, “sectarianism” and “defamation” after publishing an article in which she wrote, “Anyone who kills a Tutsi has problems, but if you kill a Hutu you go free”. She pleaded guilty to all charges at her trial, acknowledged the “enormity of what she had written” and promised to “publish an apology. The Press High Council, media regulatory body controlled by the government, called for the paper to be closed for three months. The information ministry had not yet confirmed the decision as required by law, when Uwimana Nkusi was arrested. She was released one year later, on 19 January 2008.
Similarly, Congolese academic, Idesbald Byabuze Katabaruka was arrested while lecturing at the Kigali Lay Adventist University (UNILAK) on 16 February in connection with a report critical of the president and the ruling party. The prosecutor told him that he was being charged with “endangering state security”, “segregation” and “sectarianism”. A court in Kagarama on 23 February ordered him to be held in custody for 30 days while awaiting trial. Also professor at the Catholic University of Bukavu in South Kivu, eastern DRC, had just launched Mashariki News, a newspaper which had only appeared twice at that point. He was editor for several years of alarming reports on the humanitarian crisis on the Rwanda-Congo border and was co-signatory, on 8 June 2005, of an article “Rwanda Alert” for the Missionary Service News Agency (MISNA) which was fiercely critical of the governance of Rwanda by President Paul Kagame and his ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (FPR) since coming to power in 1994. The two other signatories were an Italian nun and a Congolese nun of the Catholic Missions in eastern DRC. Idesbald Byabuze Katabaruka was released on 21 March, expelled from the country and then declared “persona non grata”.
Acquitted after 11 years
The year however ended with some good news. A gacaca (people’s) court after three hours deliberation, acquitted a former journalist on Radio Rwanda Tatiana Mukakibibi, on 6 November of “genocide”, “planning and participating in genocide” and “distributing arms” in the Kimegeri area between April and July 1994. She had been officially accused of killing Eugène Bwanamudogo, who made programmes for the agriculture ministry, but she denied it and maintained she had been framed. She was released a few days later ... after 11 years in custody. Tatiana Mukakibibi was a presenter and producer on Radio Rwanda. After the genocide, in August 1994, she worked with the priest André Sibomana (former director of Kinyamateka and laureate of the 1994 Reporters Without Borders prize, who died in March 1998). She was arrested on 2 October 1996, taken to a collective cell, where she was held in extremely harsh conditions until December 2006.
Reporters Without Borders reports 2008