Walking the media tightrope in Rwanda

There are few simple stories in Rwanda.

There are official positions, which are often stated simply and unilaterally. But if you dig deeper, you often find multiple and complex story lines seething just below the surface.

Like the “We are all Rwandans” comment we hear so often.

What this can mean is that the ethnic tension between the Hutus and Tutsis, which spawned the 1994 genocide, persists but is generally taboo to talk about. By some accounts, this sense of ethnic division may even be on the increase due to the current government’s tendency to favor Tutsis.

IRP journalists interviewing in northern Rwanda

We are journalists exploring Rwanda through the International Reporting Project. And this is a country notorious in the West for its authoritarian tendency to put journalists in jail, fine them or otherwise punish critical commentary.

Some even end up dead.

That sounds like an easy target for condemnation – which many organizations, like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, do. Yet even this situation is more complex than it sounds.

Rwanda’s media in 1994 played a leading role in promoting, and to some extent even coordinating, the “Hutu Power” slaughter of some 800,000 mostly Tutsi men, women and children. So President Paul Kagame’s Tutsi-dominated government is not too sympathetic to arguments advocating unrestricted media freedoms.

Media independence and freedom of expression has been a lot of what we’ve been talking about – when we’re on the bus between meetings with officials, in private discussions with Rwandans we meet or maybe over beers recuperating from a day of mental exercise.

What’s not clear is how we should best report on it. Our primary host — and fixer — is a local journalist named Fred Mwasa who keeps saying things that make us nervous.

Rwandan journalist Fred Mwasa handing out copies of his paper

Mwasa, who works for a new publication called The Chronicles, tells us you won’t find many Rwandans who will openly, publicly, speak critically of the government. Yet he does it all the time.

“My parents think I’m a bit crazy,” Mwasa told me with a laugh. He doesn’t worry, he says, because many of his family members are highly placed in the government and he knows where the boundary lines are drawn.

The question arises: Is Mwasa taking a serious risk in pushing the limits imposed on media here or is he evidence of a change toward greater tolerance of critical voices?

Mwasa’s boss and publisher at The Chronicles, Christopher Kayumba, said the lines restricting media freedom are currently being redrawn. Many politicians are now pushing to relax the restrictions in Rwanda such as changing laws governing “defamation” or ethnic “divisionism.”

It may all just be talk, of course, but many here do appear to believe the push for more openness and media independence is real.

Some of the impetus to get rid of Rwanda’s draconian regulations governing the media may come from the drumbeat of human rights complaints. But part of it may actually be driven simply by the profit motive.

It turned out that a two-day conference held by Rwanda’s Media High Council (a government agency with not the best track record when it comes to meeting its mandate to protect journalists) was being held in the same hotel we are staying at.

I’m media so, after a day on the road, I wandered in to the meeting to listen.

Rwanda Media High Council discusses media reform in Kigali

Nobody was talking about human rights abuses or journalists being jailed. They were talking about the media as a business, and about Rwanda’s over-arching goal of becoming East Africa’s hub for new media, information technology – a knowledge-based economy.

Several speakers noted that this is going to be a bit hard to accomplish, or at least a little difficult when making the sales pitch about Rwanda as a regional center for the information economy, if they don’t first create a more open and free media environment.

As steps in this direction, the Media High Council has agreed to give up its role of “regulating” journalists and allow the media to self-regulate (like in the U.S., if you can call what we do self-regulation). As noted earlier, there are moves afoot to get rid of the statutes on defamation or ‘genocide ideology’ often used to silence critics.

The council and Rwanda’s Prime Minister Pierre Damien Habumuremyi both issued somewhat ‘mea culpa’ statements acknowledging that such restrictions have had a deleterious impact on media quality and performance.

“The space for independent media is definitely opening up,” said Kayumba. But changing the rules and government behavior with respect to media is just a first step, he said

“The lack of free and open media is not just a problem caused by the government,” said Kayumba. Part of the problem, he said, is Rwanda’s culture of silent acceptance and a public that has not yet embraced the concept of a free and impartial media.

“Media reform is a process,” he said.

Kayumba said his goal for The Chronicles, which only started publishing its weekly newspaper little more than a month ago, is to be the flagship for a variety of media (radio, TV) covering Rwanda in the context of all of East Africa.

As a publication aimed at serving a regional audience, Kayumba said, The Chronicles has to be regarded as independent and not serving merely Rwandan (including Rwandan government) interests.

Market forces, he said, may do more to create an independent, critical and professional media industry in Rwanda than any of the complaints from human rights organizations or foreign critics were able to accomplish.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.

  • Mugisha

    The idea that Rwandans
    have a culture of silence when those who talk are killed, imprisoned or exile
    is as preposterous as it gets. Total B.S! The government should
    stop hiding under a cultural veil, while making it extremely difficult for
    anyone to have opposing viewpoints.

    Just yesterday, it has
    been reported by Reporters without Borders that three more journalists were
    arrested. Yes, this happened at a time when Rwanda was hosting a high level
    media forum. Can anything this government says be taken seriously? In my view,
    this paragraph best encapsulates the reality of the so called media reform: “Nobody was talking about human rights abuses or
    journalists being jailed. They were talking about the media as a business, and
    about Rwanda’s over-arching goal of becoming East Africa’s hub for new media,
    information technology – a knowledge-based economy.” Why, you may ask,
    wouldn’t reformist journalists talk about such disturbing precedents? Why wouldn’t
    they demand the freedom of their colleagues? The answer is quite simple. The
    government has succeeded, at least for now, in uprooting all forms of free
    speech! What remains are partisan journalists with no interest in reforms! 

  • Mugisha

    The idea that Rwandans
    have a culture of silence when those who talk are killed, imprisoned or exile
    is as preposterous as it gets. Total B.S! The government should
    stop hiding under a cultural veil, while making it extremely difficult for
    anyone to have opposing viewpoints.

    Just yesterday, it has
    been reported by Reporters without Borders that three more journalists were
    arrested. Yes, this happened at a time when Rwanda was hosting a high level
    media forum. Can anything this government says be taken seriously? In my view,
    this paragraph best encapsulates the reality of the so called media reform: “Nobody was talking about human rights abuses or
    journalists being jailed. They were talking about the media as a business, and
    about Rwanda’s over-arching goal of becoming East Africa’s hub for new media,
    information technology – a knowledge-based economy.” Why, you may ask,
    wouldn’t reformist journalists talk about such disturbing precedents? Why wouldn’t
    they demand the freedom of their colleagues? The answer is quite simple. The
    government has succeeded, at least for now, in uprooting all forms of free
    speech! What remains are partisan journalists with no interest in reforms! 

  • Mugisha

    The idea that Rwandans have a culture of silence when those who talk are killed, imprisoned or exile is as preposterous as it gets. Total B.S! The government should
    stop hiding under a cultural veil, while making it extremely difficult for anyone to have opposing viewpoints. 

    Just yesterday, it has been reported by Reporters without Borders that three more journalists were arrested. Yes, this happened at a time when Rwanda was hosting a high level media forum. Can anything this government says be taken seriously? In my view, this paragraph best encapsulates the reality of the so called media reform: “Nobody was talking about human rights abuses or journalists being jailed. They were talking about the media as a business, and about Rwanda’s over-arching goal of becoming East Africa’s hub for new media, information technology – a knowledge-based economy.” 
    Why, you may ask, wouldn’t reformist journalists talk about such disturbing precedents? Why wouldn’t they demand the freedom of their colleagues? The answer is quite simple. The government has succeeded, at least for now, in uprooting all forms of freespeech! What remains are partisan journalists with no interest in reforms!

  • Mugisha

    The idea that Rwandans have a culture of silence when those who talk are killed, imprisoned or exile is as preposterous as it gets. Total B.S! The government should
    stop hiding under a cultural veil, while making it extremely difficult for anyone to have opposing viewpoints. 

    Just yesterday, it has been reported by Reporters without Borders that three more journalists were arrested. Yes, this happened at a time when Rwanda was hosting a high level media forum. Can anything this government says be taken seriously? In my view, this paragraph best encapsulates the reality of the so called media reform: “Nobody was talking about human rights abuses or journalists being jailed. They were talking about the media as a business, and about Rwanda’s over-arching goal of becoming East Africa’s hub for new media, information technology – a knowledge-based economy.” 
    Why, you may ask, wouldn’t reformist journalists talk about such disturbing precedents? Why wouldn’t they demand the freedom of their colleagues? The answer is quite simple. The government has succeeded, at least for now, in uprooting all forms of freespeech! What remains are partisan journalists with no interest in reforms!

  • Brad Lehigh

    Rwanda’s media in 1994 played a leading role in promoting, and to some extent even coordinating, the “Hutu Power” slaughter of some 800,000 mostly Tutsi men, women and children. So President Paul Kagame’s Tutsi-dominated government is not too sympathetic to arguments advocating unrestricted media freedoms.

    So Kagame justifies media repression against reporting corruption against his government because 18 years ago RTLM used their “free speech” to promate ethnic hatred?

    Seems a little disconnected…of course as long as Kagame stays “in line” with the west I suppose nobody will mind

  • Brad Lehigh

    Rwanda’s media in 1994 played a leading role in promoting, and to some extent even coordinating, the “Hutu Power” slaughter of some 800,000 mostly Tutsi men, women and children. So President Paul Kagame’s Tutsi-dominated government is not too sympathetic to arguments advocating unrestricted media freedoms.

    So Kagame justifies media repression against reporting corruption against his government because 18 years ago RTLM used their “free speech” to promate ethnic hatred?

    Seems a little disconnected…of course as long as Kagame stays “in line” with the west I suppose nobody will mind

  • Philippe Boucher

    Here is the Reporters Without Borders story: what else can you get (since you are there)
    Reporters Without Borders condemns the arrests of three journalists in the space of a week in Kigali. Two were released yesterday morning but the third one is still detained.“This series of arrests has again highlighted the extreme vulnerability of journalists in Rwanda,”Reporters Without Borders said. “We call on the authorities to publicly explain why these journalistshave been held, and to release the third one immediately. We also urge the government to move forward with its proposed reform of the press law, which hopefully will protect journalists from arbitrary arrest and detention.“Ironically, these three arrests took place just as the Third Annual National Dialogue on Media was about to begin in Kigali. Organized by the Media High Council, this two-day conference is supposed to promote an environment that favours press freedom and allows the media to operate in a free, independent and professional manner.”The latest journalist to be arrested was Joseph Bideri, the editor of the New Times, a privately-owned daily that supports the ruling party. He was arrested by the Kigali police on 14 November and was freed yesterday morning.A recent series of articles in the newspaper described a case of embezzlement in the construction of the Rukarara hydro-electric dam in the west of the country. A report about Bideri’s arrest was posted on the New Times website yesterday morning and was then quickly removed.Jean Gualbert Burasa, the editor of the independent bimonthly Rushyashya, was arrested by the Kigali police on 11 November. According to the police, he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. But his arrest may have been prompted by the publication of an article about the desecration of former social affairs minister Christine Nyatanyi’s grave. The journalist was freed on 15 November.The third journalist is René Anthère Rwanyange, who has also been held since last week. The police say he was arrested for the theft of a laptop computer but he has not yet been charged.For more information about media freedom in Rwanda, please click here.

  • Philippe Boucher

    Here is the link.
    http://en.rsf.org/rwanda-three-journalists-arrested-in-the-16-11-2011,41395.html
    It seems to me that the more protest there is the more the Kagame regime will have to think twice about jailing journalists.
    Of course if you guys (and girls) remain silent, why should they bother? Their pals who don’t consider freedom of the press or freedom of expression important are not going to do it.
    If not YOU, WHO? If not NOW, WHEN?

  • Philippe Boucher

    Here is the link.
    http://en.rsf.org/rwanda-three-journalists-arrested-in-the-16-11-2011,41395.html
    It seems to me that the more protest there is the more the Kagame regime will have to think twice about jailing journalists.
    Of course if you guys (and girls) remain silent, why should they bother? Their pals who don’t consider freedom of the press or freedom of expression important are not going to do it.
    If not YOU, WHO? If not NOW, WHEN?