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Rwanda31 January 2006

President kicks off verbal onslaught on journalists by government officials

Reporters Without Borders today said it was stunned by the Rwandan government’s inquisitorial behaviour towards two journalists working for the international media, who were publicly censured by the information minister, public radio chief and police spokesman on 26 January, two days after President Paul Kagame spoke of the press with contempt at a cabinet meeting.

“Previously, the independent press was physically attacked, now it is hauled before an informal political tribunal,” the press freedom organisation said. “It is clear that Rwandan journalists who do not sing the government’s praises are treated with contempt and hostility. What more proof do we need that press freedom is at risk in Rwanda?”

Reporters Without Borders added: “As a matter of urgency, the authorities should take stock of the harm they are doing to the right to information, and should rectify their behaviour, or we will have to keep repeating that Rwanda has failed to construct a real democracy.”

The two journalists singled out at a conference and debate staged by the information ministry on 26 January were Lucie Umukundwa, the correspondent of Voice of America (VOA), Jean-Claude Mwambutsa, the BBC’s correspondent.

Government spokesman Joseph Bideri, who also heads the Rwandan Information Office (ORINFOR), accused Mwambutsa of “exaggerating” Human Rights Watch’s criticism of Rwanda in its annual report, published on 19 January, which declared the “gacaca” popular tribunals set up in 2003 to hear genocide cases to have been a failure on account of their slowness and their many irregularities.

Umukundwa was taken to task for her coverage of the controversy resulting from the objections raised by three newspaper editors to the annual report issued on 9 December by the High Press Council (HCP), which regulates the Rwandan media, and for her references to Amnesty International’s bleak assessment of press freedom in Rwanda.

Information minister Laurent Nkusi accused her of taking an interest only in news “critical of the government” and said this showed she was “the only source of information for Reporters Without Borders and other organisations.”

State-owned Radio Rwanda director Willy Rukundo attacked both of them, claiming they were “not patriots” and were guilty of “treason,” while police spokesman Theos Badeg said, “the ideology of these journalists must be reviewed.”

President Kagame reportedly said at a meeting with his ministers on 24 January, “I do not see how a pitiful Rwanda journalist can unsettle responsible men and women such as yourselves.” He said “the press seems almost non-existent” and added that many unemployed “elements on the fringe of society” enter journalism as a way to make some money. Outraged press representatives called Kagame’s comments “slanderous” and “scandalous.”

Armed intruders burst into the home of Bonaventure Bizumuremyi, the editor of the opposition fortnightly Umuco, in the early hours of 15 January, ransacked his house, threatened him and ordered him to stop publishing articles criticising the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (FPR).

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