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Attacks on the Press in 2004 - Rwanda

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2005
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2004 - Rwanda, February 2005, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c566ed2d.html [accessed 10 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The government of President Paul Kagame continued to suppress criticism and maintain a firm grip on the press in 2004. Although the 2003 elections were supposed to bring democracy to Rwanda, independent journalists continued to live in fear of harassment and imprisonment, and others were forced to flee after receiving death threats.

The Rwandan media still grapple with the role that some outlets, especially the notorious radio station RTLM, played in inciting the 1994 genocide, in which at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in less than three months; media outlets linked to Hutu political leaders, who organized the genocide, helped to fuel the climate of ethnic hatred and direct the slaughter. In December 2003, the U.N.'s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, convicted three former Rwandan media directors of genocide and crimes against humanity.

A new constitution, adopted by referendum in 2003, guarantees press freedom "in conditions prescribed by the law." But the law bars "any propaganda of ethnic, regional, racial or divisive character or based on any other form of divisionism." Under a 2002 criminal law, public incitement to discrimination or divisionism is punishable by up to five years in prison, heavy fines, or both.

The current Tutsi-led regime, which consolidated power in the 2003 election, has increasingly used allegations of ethnic "divisionism" to silence critics. Such allegations have been used against Rwanda's only independent newspaper, Umuseso (The Dawn), and against the Rwandan League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LIPRODHOR). Several members of these organizations have fled the country in fear for their lives.

In July, a government-commissioned parliamentary report accused international radio stations, which are among the few providers of independent news in Rwanda, of "genocidal ideology" and suggested that they be forced to reveal their sources. Foreign radio services broadcasting in Rwanda include the BBC and the U.S. government-funded Voice of America, which carry programs in the local language, Kinyarwanda, as well as in French and English.

Radio is the most effective means to reach the population countrywide. A 2002 media law provided for licensing of private radio and TV stations for the first time since the genocide. A number of private radio licenses have been granted since the 2003 elections, and several commercial, religious, and community stations were on the air at year's end. However, CPJ sources say they carry little independent news and are unlikely to do so any time soon, given the current climate of government intimidation and media self-censorship.

Against a background of continuing tension between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which have fought two wars since 1996, the parliamentary report also accused radio stations in eastern DRC, which can be heard in western Rwanda, of propagating ethnic hatred in the Great Lakes region. The report pointed a finger at a number of stations, including Radio Okapi, a joint project of the United Nations and Hirondelle, an award-winning Swiss organization that promotes peace through media. Radio Okapi was launched in 2002 to promote national reconciliation and support the peace process, and it is the only radio station broadcasting throughout the DRC's vast territory.

The July parliamentary report also recommended the dissolution of LIPRODHOR, alleging that some of its members promoted ethnic divisionism. Several league members fled the country. The government temporarily froze LIPRODHOR's bank accounts, forcing the organization to stop operating and to halt publication of Le Verdict (The Verdict), its monthly journal on justice issues, and Umukindo (The Palm Frond), its human rights review. These publications frequently criticized the government, highlighting the plight of genocide survivors and calling on the government to create a compensation fund for them. Although international observers gave little credence to the parliamentary report's findings regarding LIPRODHOR, the organization issued a public "apology" to the government and the people of Rwanda in September for what it said was the "bad behavior" of some members. It subsequently began operating again with a new board. At year's end, Le Verdict and Umukindo had not yet resumed publishing.

The government continued to harass Umuseso, Rwanda's sole independent, local-language newspaper. In November, Umuseso editor Charles Kabonero was tried on criminal charges of defamation and divisionism in connection with an article that accused parliamentary Vice President Denis Polisi of plotting to seize power. He was acquitted of ethnic divisionism but convicted of defamation. He avoided a prison sentence but was ordered to pay a fine and symbolic damages to Polisi.

The Kabonero case was the first criminal case against a news outlet to go to trial since President Kagame took power in 1994, but the government has long intimidated independent journalists, especially those from Umuseso. Staff members said they were harassed and threatened after the article appeared. Kabonero said he was forced into hiding by the threats for about 10 days until he received assurances from senior officials that the harassment would stop.

A series of former Umuseso editors have been forced into exile by threats. In February, Robert Sebufirira, the former managing editor of the newspaper, and Elly Macdowell Kalisa, the former deputy editor, fled Rwanda after receiving death threats they said came from senior members of the government security services. The threats followed articles in Umuseso that accused senior officials of corruption. The flight of Sebufirira and MacDowell followed that of former Umuseso Editor Ismail Mbonigaba in 2003, and another editor before him.

In August, Rwanda's High Council of the Press (HCP) summoned Kabonero and questioned him about the article on Polisi. When Kabonero refused to reveal his sources or acknowledge "mistakes," the HCP recommended that the government suspend the publication. Local journalists petitioned Information Minister Laurent Nkusi against a ban and said the HCP had overstepped its powers. Umuseso was not suspended, but only because Polisi decided to bring criminal charges against the paper.

Journalists remain skeptical that the HCP will be independent of government influence. Launched in 2003, the HCP has nine members – three from the private press, one from the state media, two from civil-society groups, and three appointed by the government. It is headed by Privat Rudazibwa, editor of the pro-government Rwanda News Agency. The HCP's mandate is to accredit journalists, grant broadcasting authorizations, and advise the government on censorship.


2004 Documented Cases – Rwanda

FEBRUARY 27, 2004
Posted: April 28, 2004

Robert Sebufirira, Umuseso
Elly Macdowell Kalisa, Umuseso
THREATENED, HARASSED, CENSORED

Sebufirira and Macdowell, editor and deputy editor, respectively, for the newspaper Umuseso, fled Rwanda with their driver, Budeyi Nathan, following a series of death threats from senior members of the government security services. The threats were linked to articles in Umuseso that exposed corruption, according to Sebufirira.

In early January, the newspaper published the first of four articles that accused former State Prosecutor and Vice President of the Supreme Court Gerald Gahima of abuse of office, notably to secure a large bank loan without collateral. Gahima was forced to resign in February 2004. Local journalists say the Umuseso articles played a significant role in his leaving.

Also in January, Umuseso published an article accusing Lt. Col. Théogène Rudasingwa, Gahima's brother and director of Cabinet in the Office of the President, of mismanaging a State House construction contract. Rudasingwa left for the United States shortly after and has not returned to Rwanda. The following issue of Umuseso, dated January 20, was seized at the Ugandan border and was not allowed to circulate, while members of its staff were detained for questioning before being released without charge. The newspaper is printed in Uganda to reduce costs.

Sebufurira and Umuseso reporter Emmanuel Munyaneza were again detained on February 22 and taken for questioning to the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) in the capital, Kigali, where two journalists from the newspaper Imbarutso and one from the New Times had also been detained. A top DMI official referred to the Umuseso journalists as "Interahamwe," which is understood in Rwanda to constitute a threat of death or imprisonment. Interahamwe were the Hutu militia that spearheaded the 1994 genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The March 2 edition of Umuseso quoted the official as having said: "You are aware of what you did to Gahima. [ ... ] We shall not tolerate it and if you continue to attack the system we shall take you where the other Interahamwe are."

Sebufurira said that at the time, top security officials threatened to kill him and his colleagues or detain them and "throw away the keys." On February 26, armed men came to his home, where they also found driver Nathan, took the two to a nearby forest, and told them they were going to die, according to Sebufurira. One of the men then told them he did not want to see them again in Rwanda if they valued their lives. Sebufurira, Macdowell, and Nathan fled the country the following day.

JULY 5, 2004
Posted: July 21, 2004

César Balume Wetemwami, freelance
IMPRISONED

Wetemwami, president of the association of photographers of DRC's North-Kivu Province, was arrested by Rwandan officials when he crossed the border from Goma (DRC) into Gisenyi (Rwanda). The officials accused him of spying, according to Congolese press freedom group Journaliste en Danger (JED).

Wetemwami, who is based in Goma, had gone to Gisenyi on a photo assignment for various Congolese newspapers. After his arrest, he was detained in a military prison in Gisenyi. During questioning, he was accused of spying because his cell phone contained contact numbers for DRC President Laurent Kabila and Information Minister Vital Kamerhe, Balume later told JED.

On July 16, after JED and international news media reported his arrest, the Rwandan military handed Balume over to Congolese authorities in Goma. He was released on July 18.

AUGUST 26, 2004
Posted: October 7, 2004

Tharcisse Semana, Umuseso
HARASSED, THREATENED

Semana, a journalist with independent weekly Umuseso, fled the country in fear for his life. Semana told CPJ that he started receiving threats in May, for critical articles on the trial of former president Pasteur Bizimungu. Bizimungu, a moderate Hutu, was Rwanda's first post-genocide president who stepped down in 2000 and was arrested when he tried to form his own political party. In June, Bizimungu was sentenced to 15 years in prison for embezzlement, inciting violence and associating with criminals, charges that some human rights groups said were politically motivated.

In the months of May, June and July, Semana said he was twice held for questioning by national intelligence agents; received threatening telephone calls from senior judicial officials; was arrested near his residence and held for two hours by unidentified agents; and was assaulted and denied entrance to sports and cultural events by police.

Semana told CPJ he received more threats from a senior official who came to see him after publication of three articles on a parliamentary commission's recommendation to ban the Rwandan human rights organization LIPRODHOR. The articles by Semana appeared in Umuseso from July 1 to 9.

Acting on a request from Information Minister Laurent Nkusi, Rwanda's High Council of the Press (HCP) summoned Umuseso journalists on August 18 over articles accusing parliamentary Vice President Denis Polisi of plotting to seize power. Editor Charles Kabonero was asked to reveal his sources and to apologize for his "mistakes," which he refused to do. Semana wrote an article in the same edition criticizing government plans for reform of the judicial system.

Semana said he was stopped by intelligence agents that evening, and neighbors told him police had come to his house-causing him to stop sleeping at home.

Semana told CPJ that on the evening of August 25, he narrowly escaped two people who tried to force him into an unmarked car. He said he was later followed and threatened by three people, including a member of the intelligence services whom he recognized. He fled to Uganda the next day.

NOVEMBER 16, 2004
Updated: March 23, 2005

Charles Kabonero, Umuseso
LEGAL ACTION, HARASSED

Kabonero, editor of of Umuseso, Rwanda's only independent newspaper, was tried on criminal charges of defamation and "divisionism" in connection with an article that accused parliamentary Vice President Denis Polisi of plotting to seize power.

On November 23, Kabonero was acquitted of a criminal charge of ethnic "divisionism," but convicted of defamation and insulting a public official. He averted a prison sentence, but was ordered to pay a fine of 8,500 Rwandan francs (US$15) and symbolic damages of 1 franc to parliamentary Vice President Denis Polisi.

The prosecution had asked for a prison sentence of four years in addition to a hefty fine.

This was the first criminal case against a news outlet to go to trial since President Paul Kagame took power in 1994, but the government has long intimidated independent journalists through other means, prompting several to flee in fear for their lives.

The charges stemmed from an August article in the Kinyarwanda-language weekly that accused Polisi of abuse of power. The article also reported speculation about Polisi's political aspirations, and divisions in the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front.

The prosecution appealed the verdict. On March 22, 2005, an appeals court upheld Kabonero's conviction on defamation charges and stiffened the sentence, imposing a one-year suspended jail term as well as raising the fine to 59,500 Rwandan francs (roughly US $100). The court also ordered Kabonero to pay one million Rwandan francs (roughly US $1,800) in damages to Polisi.

According to local sources, the appeals court found the initial sentence too lenient. The court did, however, uphold Kabonero's acquittal on the more serious charge of "divisionism."

Umuseso staff members say they were harassed and threatened after the article appeared. Kabonero, who also directs Umuseso's parent company, the Rwanda Independent Media Group (RIMEG), was forced into hiding by the threats for about 10 days.

Rwandan authorities have frequently targeted Umuseso in the past. Robert Sebufirira, former managing editor of the newspaper, and Elly Macdowell Kalisa, the former deputy editor, fled Rwanda in February after getting a series of death threats they believe came from senior members of the government security services. The threats followed articles in Umuseso on alleged corruption by senior officials.

DECEMBER 18, 2004ss
Posted: January 27, 2005

Mugisha Furaha, Umuseso
ATTACKED

Rwango Kadafi, Umuseso
ATTACKED

Reporters Furaha and Kadafi were viciously attacked by six knife-wielding assailants as they were leaving a Kigali night club. Furaha told CPJ that journalists from the newspaper were known to frequent the club, and that one of the attackers told his accomplices: "Those are the guys from Umuseso."

Both journalists managed to escape but suffered deep knife wounds. Sources in Kigali said some of the attackers were from the military. Three were arrested, but the ringleader remains at large.

On January 1, 2005, Kadafi fled to neighboring Tanzania with another Umuseso reporter, Didas Gasana, who had been detained and threatened by plainclothes armed men at the Ugandan border the previous day.

Umuseso, which publishes in the Rwandan language, Kinyarwanda, is considered to be Rwanda's only truly independent newspaper. A series of former Umuseso editors have been forced into exile by threats.

DECEMBER 31, 2004
Posted: January 27, 2005

Didas Gasana, Umuseso
HARASSED, THREATENED

Reporter Gasana was arrested at the Ugandan border by plainclothes armed men who detained him for five hours in an unknown location and threatened him with death, including pressing a gun to his forehead, according to the journalist. Gasana had obtained an exit visa to travel to Uganda for medical reasons, but he was detained before he left Rwanda.

On January 1, 2005, Gasana fled to neighboring Tanzania with another Umuseso reporter, Rwango Kadafi, who had been targeted in a knife attack earlier in the month. On December 18, six knife-wielding assailants attacked Kadafi and another Umuseso reporter, Mugisha Furaha, as they were leaving a Kigali night club.

Umuseso, which publishes in the Rwandan language, Kinyarwanda, is considered to be Rwanda's only truly independent newspaper. A series of former Umuseso editors have been forced into exile by threats.

Copyright notice: © Committee to Protect Journalists. All rights reserved. Articles may be reproduced only with permission from CPJ.

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