Censorship Looms Over Rwanda’s Future Journalists

Rwanda 2011

By Mary Rose Madden

April 20, 2012

Also aired on WYPR, an NPR affiliate

Eighteen years ago, the pro-government radio station in Rwanda, RTLM, incited, encouraged, and organized Rwanda's Hutu ethnic group to find, hunt, and kill their Tutsi neighbors.

It went so far as to air names of Tutsis so they would be easy to find. It called out to Hutus to "get to work" killing their Tutsi neighbors.

Today, media in Rwanda is strictly controlled by the Tutsi- led government. As part of our series, "Rwanda's Next Steps: A Generation Living in Genocide's Aftermath," WYPR's Mary Rose Madden brings us this snapshot of journalism today in Rwanda.

His mom nicknamed him Junior - he's the youngest of five boys. Junior is walking me through the streets of Kigali, Rwanda's capital. This budding journalist has a story on his mind and it starts with his personal experience of completely losing his sight when he was ten years old.

"It was 1994 25th June. And when we were standing we hear the bomb."

Junior remembers standing by a tree and then suddenly, fragments hit his face.


Junior, a budding Rwandan journalist, went blind after a grenade explosion during the genocide.Photo: Mary Rose Madden

"Immediately I lose my sight. It shoots me in the eyes and I lose immediately I lose my sight."

Junior remembers his mom by his side.

"My mom told me "my son, you are blind now"."

The majority Hutu population had been selling grenades in the market place to fellow Hutus for next to nothing. They used these grenades, along with machetes and guns to kill hundreds of thousands of the minority Tutsi population and some moderate Hutus. Just under a million people were killed in 100 days. Many of the survivors were left scarred for life. Junior wraps one arm in mine, and taps a thin white cane against the uneven sidewalk.

"Do you see this stick? Its role is to guide someone who is blind. Second, it is to show others that man who uses this stick is blind, please take care of him or her. Especially in Rwanda, the people or drivers don't care for this stick."

Now, he's combining his experience with his passion for journalism.

"So, I'd tried to do a documentary "“ a video documentary "“ by showing the people the role of this cane."

Junior's documentary will portray daily life as a young person who is blind in Rwanda. He is one of many journalists who have found a niche in a country that has frustrated numerous reporters. It's a lot safer to report human interest stories in Rwanda than to tackle stories have cover politics, government, or development.

During the genocide, Rwandans saw what happens when the media is turned into an instrument of hate. Since then, several laws regarding free speech have been put in place in an attempt to control any language that could stoke ethnic hatred. The genocide ideology law and the law against divisionism are criticized for being broadly worded and severely vague. Some say the laws are intentionally vague.

"They were used and they still are used to silence any critical voices. "

Tom Rhodes is a reporter for the Committee to Protect Journalists or CPJ. CPJ, Reporters Without Borders, and Freedom House have consistently ranked Rwanda as one of the worst countries in the world as far as press freedom.

Critics say the government views critical journalism as equivalent to denying the genocide and inciting civil disobedience. And this, says Rhodes, greatly obstructs freedom of the press.

"One of the biggest difficulties I see for Rwandan journalists is there's large network of security agents both operating within the country and in neighboring countries, especially now in Uganda."

Watchdog groups aren't the only ones who are reporting these problems. During a visit to Rwanda a few months ago, UN Ambassador Susan Rice gave a speech in which she praised the economic revival and social progress in Rwanda but criticized what she called a closed political culture and restrictions on the press. Here's Rice.

"Civil society activists, journalists, and political opponents of the government often fear organizing peacefully and speaking out. Some have been harassed. Some have been intimidated by late-night callers. Some have simply disappeared."

Many journalists have left the country in fear. In 2010 during the last Presidential election in Rwanda, British police warned two of the exiled journalists living in London that threats had been made on their lives by the Rwandan government, according to The New York Times.

Also in 2010, two Rwandan newspapers were suspended by the government. And two Rwandan journalists have been killed since 2010. In the past four years, at least seven journalists have been imprisoned under a law which makes criticizing the president a criminal offense.

President Paul Kagame.Photo: Mary Rose Madden

"If I were the one to decide entirely on these issues," says Rwanda's President, Paul Kagame, "nobody would be punished for criticizing the president."

President Kagame, who has held office since 2000, says this defamation law has nothing to do with him.

"I have had nothing to do with writing the law about the media. I don't prosecute. I'm not a judge in the court of law. I have let these things run their course."

Rwanda's Media High Council is the official regulatory agency "“ but many say they are strongly influenced by the government. President Kagame says the criticisms are coming from outside the country and Rwandans are happy with the way things are.

So, how do young aspiring journalists in Rwanda see their future unfolding? At a small classroom in Kigali, about 50 Rwandan journalism students have come to discuss the future of their craft. The discussion touches on accuracy, fairness, balanced viewpoints.

But the questions most pressing to them are those that deal with their personal safety as reporters:

"Sometimes journalists fear that what if I write this story, where is my life tomorrow morning? The fear, they have the fear within them. You can't try to criticize."

"Much as I love journalism, I also fear it, cause it reaches a point and you find that the doors in this career are closed."

"Politics in Rwanda is still quite some amount of fear in a number of us here. Because they think once you venture into politics then somebody is after you. "

The Rwandan journalism students reflect the same fears that many seasoned reporters who file from Rwanda do. Self-censorship and unspoken intimidation loom over Rwanda's future journalists.

Lousie Mushikiwabo, who was the Minister of Information for many years. She is now in charge of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation. She says there is reason to have hope things will improve. Earlier this month, Rwanda's Supreme Court lessened the sentences of two journalists who have been imprisoned since 2010.

"There is sort of a soul-searching going on in terms of how to improve professionalism, respect our law, and push our media to go a bit higher than where it is today. The more the issues of defamation disappear, the more inclined people will be to make it a civil offense."

But, that is exactly what worries critics like Tom Rhodes from CPJ--that in the future we're going to see some improvements in press freedom conditions in Rwanda but we still won't see fair and balanced journalism.

"All the critical journalists have fled. You're left with either self-censored voices or pro-government voices left in the country and therefore there will be a lot less of a crackdown but at the same time there's a lot less open space for debate and discussion."

Right now, one of the most popular newspapers in Rwanda is pro-government. And that troubles critics who are thinking back to the pro-government media in 1994. Rwanda has the genocide hovering in the background of daily life. And the media in Rwanda is no exception.

I'm Mary Rose Madden for 88.1, WYPR.

This reporting is sponsored by The International Reporting Project. Check out this special section of our website for more. You can contact Mary Rose Madden at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).