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Rwanda between censorship and self-censorship

The East African country’s press laws are comparatively liberal. Nevertheless, journalists in Rwanda cannot work and write freely, as the organisation Committee to Protect Journalists documents.

Twenty years after the genocide, which killed 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutu, the situation in Rwanda is largely stable. But this has its price: many journalists are prevented from their work, critical reporting is often suppressed – although freedom of the press and freedom of information are enshrined in Rwanda’s constitution.

This is the conclusion of a report published by the New York-based non-governmental organization Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). It was written by the South African Anton Harber, who heads the South African Institute for Freedom of Expression in his home country and heads the journalism programme at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg.

Self-censorship like blood in your veins

Harber has interviewed more than 25 Rwandan journalists, publishers and government officials. Many critical journalists complained about harassment and obstruction by authorities, arbitrary police interviews or anonymous threats, the South African told. Many were afraid and did not report on critical issues.

President of Rwanda Paul Kagame

“All the journalists I spoke to said that self-censorship was a big problem for them,” says Harber. “They fear that otherwise they will have to quit their jobs, be threatened or even driven into exile. In his report, he quotes Fred Muvunyi, chairman of the non-state Rwandan Media Commission: “Self-censorship flows like blood through our veins”. And: “There is no censorship. But many things journalists don’t do because they don’t know what will happen then.”

Hope of many journalists disappointed

Four years ago, in a critical report, the State Media Authority had stated that journalists were being hindered in their work. There was no access to government information and journalists were severely restricted on the grounds of “responsible journalism”, the report said.

While the government stands for a liberal attitude to freedom of expression, there is a political culture that seeks to control dissent. “For greater freedom of the press, this culture must be changed,” the report demanded at the time. As a result, a number of reforms have indeed taken place: Rwanda was the eleventh African country to introduce the obligation for authorities to provide information. In the event of violations, journalists can turn to an ombudsman. Officials who withhold information without valid justification face penalties.

One wrong word…

The new laws are good and positive, says rapporteur Anton Harber. But they have still not led to more critical, investigative journalism in Rwanda. “Sometimes it is simply because of the financial pressure on the media in Rwanda and the fact that there is no long tradition of independent media in Rwanda,” Harber said. “But the most important is the continued harassment of critical journalists.

The reason: the progressive regulations are still being destroyed by a number of bans. It is a punishable offence to insult security forces, officials or the head of state himself. A critical contribution on President Paul Kagame’s governance or on the military’s involvement in the bloody conflict in the east of neighbouring Congo could theoretically lead to imprisonment.

Does the genocide justify rigid press laws?

In another law, it is a punishable offence to practice so-called “divisionism”, i.e. to report on topics that deal with thoughts on “ethnicity, region, race, religion, language or other divisive characteristics”. The background for this ban is the genocide 20 years ago. At that time the extremist Hutu regime had called on its ethnic group over the radio to exterminate the Tutsi ethnic group. The hateful agitation triggered an orgy of violence with hundreds of thousands dead. Only the invasion of President Paul Kagames and his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) ended the massacre.

High-ranking members of the army are arrested, people disappear without a trace: a climate of fear prevails in Rwanda. Not only on the part of government critics – also in Kagame’s own ranks.

In the past, Kagame repeatedly justified his rigid media policy with the argument that strict controls were necessary to preserve national unity and prevent a relapse into ethnically motivated violence. In fact, some journalists have also adopted this view. “Some say that the genocide is not long over and the situation remains sensitive and fragile,” says the author of the report in the interview. “These journalists say that they have to take responsibility for what they say and do.

Freer debates for a healthier democracy

Harber finds it understandable that the government wants to prevent so-called “hate speeches” and possible reporting in this direction. “But I believe that Rwanda would be a healthier democracy if it allowed a more open and free debate. He suspects that Rwanda’s government would rather avoid unpleasant criticism.

“It’s one thing to have laws, but it’s another to actively ensure that they are implemented.” The blame for the harassment of journalists lies above all with the police forces and the military. Politicians must ensure that the military respects the laws.

And what does Rwanda’s political leadership say about the Committee to Protect Journalists’ allegations? Harber received no response from the government itself by the time his report went to press. The Rwanda Governance Board, on the other hand, merely stated that the allegations were “false and far-fetched.