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Walking the media tightrope in Rwanda

IRP journalists interviewing in northern 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.

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.

Rwandan journalist Fred Mwasa handing out copies of his paper

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.

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” credit=”Tom Paulson

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.


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] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.