Huge challenges have been met in the reconstruction of a country left deeply traumatised by the 1994 genocide. But freedom of press is in no way guaranteed and Rwandan journalists suffer permanent hostility from their government and surveillance by the security services.
A country terribly scarred by the genocide against the Tutsis in 1994, Rwanda has struggled to emerge from these dark years. The country’s infrastructure has been rebuilt and a system put in place to bring to trial those responsible for “neighbourhood genocide”. But President Paul Kagame and his government have never accepted that the press should be guaranteed genuine freedom. Journalists are made to pay the price for annoying the government or revealing the shadowy side of its policies.
The year 2006 moreover began with an assault on the editor of one of the rare independent newspapers still appearing in Kigali. Bonaventure Bizumuremyi, then editor of the privately-owned weekly Umuco was woken at 3am on 15 January by four men brandishing clubs and knives who banged on the door of his home in a poor suburb of the capital. Once inside, they began ransacking the house and threatened the journalist, warning him to stop publishing articles unfavourable to the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). After neighbours intervened the four men calmly left the house. The previous evening, Bizumuremyi had been followed home by a police vehicle. He also received threats by telephone. In the latest edition of Umuco, he had condemned the lack of separation of powers in Rwanda and criticised the RPF, which he said was incapable of running the country.
The newspaper is used to government machinations. One of its journalists, Jean-Léonard Rugambage, spent 11 months in prison in Gitarama, under various pretexts, all more or less linked to the 1994 genocide. He had been arrested in September 2005, ten days after publication of the first issue of Umuco in which he exposed corruption on the part of certain gacaca (people’s courts) judges in the Ruyumba district and the use of the courts to settle personal scores. He has been sentenced to one year in prison on 23 November for “contempt of court”, after casting doubt on the impartiality of the president of the court appointed to try him and was still under threat of a completely unsubstantiated murder charge. He was finally acquitted of these two charges on 26 and 28 July 2006 and released. Since then he has resumed his post as editor of Umuco.
Condemned for political analysis
The other newspaper which has frequently felt the anger of the government is Umuseso, a weekly in the Kinyarwanda language, respected for its political analyses. On 3 August, the High Court of Rwanda, the country’s highest jurisdiction, confirmed a “public offence” conviction against Charles Kabonero, editor of the weekly, and a one-year suspended prison sentence and a fine of one million Rwandan francs (about 1450 euros) for having published a series of articles critical of how the government was run. The publisher of Umuseso was sued by Denis Polisi, deputy speaker of parliament and secretary general of the RPF, over an article which appeared in August 2004, headlined: “Between Kagame and Polisi, who is really in charge?” The article sized up, among other things Polisi’s political weight in terms of his position as party secretary general and former member of the Tutsi diaspora which sought refuge in Burundi. Kabonero also revealed that Polisi rented out office space to several para-state institutions in a building he owned.
In April, Kabonero was also the target of a vicious campaign of denigration, including in the pro-government bi-monthly Focus. On the basis of a faked letter, the newspaper accused him of conspiring with Lieutenant Abdul Ruzibiza, a former officer in the RPF’s special services, now living in exile abroad, to launch a wave of bombings in Kigali to bring down the government.
Every year, several journalists decide to go into exile rather than continue to live with an atmosphere of tension and surveillance by the security services. Bosco Gasasira, editor of the weekly Umuvugizi, told Reporters Without Borders that in August 2006 he was the target of repeated phone threats and was followed everywhere by military intelligence agents. He had refused to reveal to the authorities information about Bonaventure Bizumuremyi, who had decided to leave the country because of serious threats against his person. The newspaper Umuvugizi was also targeted by the Rwandan authorities for having dared, along with other independent publications, to criticise the management of the minister of economy and finance, James Musoni. Gasasira had in particular published an article headlined, “transfer of the maisonette from President Habyarimana’s time to the RPF”, condemning favouritism in the distribution of strategic posts and “influence-peddling” which the minister was allegedly involved in to control the country’s economy.
RFI in the line of fire
Finally, the international press, regularly accused, with press freedom and human right organisations of “disinformation” about the situation in Rwanda, drew government fury in 2006. Sonia Rolley, accredited correspondent for Radio France International (RFI) in Kigali, was ordered to leave the country on 10 June for failing to renew her visa. And when in November, the French judge Jean-Louis Bruguière issued nine international arrest warrants against Paul Kagame and his aides for alleged involvement in the shooting down of the plane that killed former president Juvénal Habyarimana, in April 1994, Rwanda not only broke off its diplomatic relations with France, but also shut down the RFI transmitter.