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Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Rwanda

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2004
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Rwanda, February 2004, available at: [accessed 19 January 2018]
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.

Nine years after the 1994 genocide, which killed about 800,000 people, Rwanda ended its transitional ruling period with a constitutional referendum, followed by the first presidential and multiparty parliamentary elections in the country since its independence in 1962. The transitional government's control of the broadcast media and its repressive tactics against the independent press helped it consolidate power in all three polls. Nevertheless, the new constitution upholds the principle of press freedom, and a new media law allows for the introduction of private radio and television stations.

President Paul Kagame – an ethnic Tutsi and former military commander who has, in effect, ruled Rwanda since 1994, when his rebel army fought its way to power and ended the genocide – was re-elected with a staggering 95 percent of the vote. His main challenger, Faustin Twagiramungu, a moderate Hutu and former prime minister, garnered only 3.6 percent. Despite "numerous irregularities" in the election, European Union (EU) observers described the poll as a "positive step" toward democracy in Rwanda.

A directive from Rwanda's Supreme Press Council mandating that all candidates receive equal treatment in broadcast and print media was well respected in slots officially allotted for election coverage, according to the EU observers. But during other news, both "the written press and the broadcast media treated the candidates unequally," reserving more positive coverage for Kagame, said EU observers.

Rwanda remains haunted by the role that some media played in the 1994 genocide, notably Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), which helped promote the massacres. On December 3, 2003, the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, gave long prison sentences to three Rwandan media executives for genocide, incitement to genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, and crimes against humanity. Ferdinand Nahimana, founder and board member of RTLM, and Hassan Ngeze, former editor of Kangura newspaper, both received the maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The court said that life imprisonment would also have been the appropriate punishment for Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, an RTLM board member and former leader of a Hutu extremist political party, but it was bound by a previous ruling that his sentence should be reduced if he was convicted, because his rights had been violated while in detention. The court therefore reduced Barayagwiza's sentence to 35 years, eight of which he had already served.

Defense lawyers argued that the verdict was a serious attack on press freedom. However, most experts agree that speech intended to provoke imminent lawless violence and that is likely to do so is not protected in courts anywhere in the world. RTLM radio, for example, was used to direct gangs of killers to specific Tutsi targets. The risk remains, however, that governments – including Rwanda's – could use this verdict as a further excuse to clamp down on legitimate criticism in the press.

State TV and radio maintain a broadcast monopoly in Rwanda. The influence of the written press is limited mainly to the capital, Kigali, due to a lack of finances, poor infrastructure for distribution, and widespread illiteracy. Radio remains the most effective way to reach the population nationwide. But the government has used the example of RTLM to argue against private radio stations, claiming that they could incite ethnic division and violence. However, foreign radio services such as the BBC, Radio France Internationale, Voice of America (VOA), and Deutsche Welle broadcast in the country. The BBC and VOA carry programs in the local language, Kinyarwanda, as well as in French and English.

Private publications that have tackled sensitive subjects, such as the war in neighboring Congo, government corruption, or election irregularities, continued to face harassment in 2003. Ismail Mbonigaba, former editor of the Kinyarwanda-language newspaper Umuseso, which is seen as the only independent voice in the Rwandan media, was arrested and imprisoned for more than a month on charges of "inciting division and discrimination." The charges came after an article in the paper reported that Twagiramungu would run against Kagame in the August elections. Mbonigaba was released in late February and subsequently launched a new journal called Indorerwamo (The Mirror), whose first edition was seized in April. Police claimed that the publication had not obtained proper authorization, but local journalists believe that this was a pretext for censorship.

In November, police detained six Umuseso staff members, including news editor Robert Sebufirira, and confiscated copies of the newspaper, which officials accused of "inciting sectarian behavior." The action stemmed from an article that questioned why certain senior military officers were being removed from duty, and why taxpayers' money had been spent to train one of these officers abroad. The journalists were released without charge two days later but told CPJ they could not resume publishing Umuseso because revenue lost from the confiscation had compounded the paper's financial problems.

Internews, a U.S.-based nongovernmental media organization that conducts civic education in Rwanda on genocide-related justice issues, received authorization from Rwandan authorities to present films about the elections but was never able to distribute them. According to the organization, two films had been produced with the support of a US$250,000 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, but Rwandan authorities stalled on giving Internews permission to distribute the films until after the elections. The first film presented portraits of the four initial presidential candidates (one subsequently withdrew and supported Kagame), with the same questions posed to each. The second film included interviews with a range of parliamentary candidates on problems facing the country.

In March 2003, the Supreme Press Council was created in accordance with a media law passed in July 2002. The council has nine members, with three elected by the private press, one from the state media, two from civil-society groups, and three appointed by the government. Council head Privat Rutazibwa, editor of the pro-government Rwanda News Agency, told CPJ that seven authorization requests had been submitted for private radio stations, but that the requests were still being processed at press time. Some local observers expressed concerns that authorities might be deliberately stalling, adding to fears that the council may not be genuinely independent.

2003 Documented Cases – Rwanda

JANUARY 22, 2003

Ismael Mbonigaba, Umuseso

Mbonigaba, editor of the private, Kinyarwanda-language newspaper Umuseso, was detained in the capital, Kigali, and charged with "inciting division and discrimination."

The charges stem from a January 13 Umuseso article reporting that Faustin Twagiramungu, the country's former prime minister, would run against President Paul Kagame in elections scheduled for July 2003. The article was accompanied by a cartoon of Kagame implying that only he could decide the future of the government.

On January 24, Mbonigaba was remanded to Kigali's Central Prison. On February 27, he was released because of procedural errors in his arrest and detention. The journalist told CPJ that after he was freed, he received several threats on his cell phone.

APRIL 22, 2003


Rwandan police seized all copies of the new private weekly Indorerwamo at the Rwanda-Uganda border. Most Rwandan publications are printed in Uganda, where costs are lower. Police alleged that Indorerwamo is an illegal newspaper because the government had not authorized its publication. Local journalists said they believe that the paperwas seized because the editor sensationalized or used provocative terms that recalled the 1994 genocide to criticize the country's leaders.

NOVEMBER 19, 2003
Posted: November 21, 2003

Robert Sebufirira, Umuseso
Kalisa McDowell, Umuseso
Furaha Mugisha, Umuseso
Emmanuel Munyaneza, Umuseso
Charles Kabonero, Umuseso

Sebufirira, editor of the independent Rwandan weekly Umuseso, was arrested at about 9:30 a.m. on November 19 near the Rwanda-Uganda border as he was bringing back 4,000 copies of the newspaper from the printers. (The newspaper is printed in Uganda for financial reasons.) Police seized the copies and took Sebufirira to the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) in Rwanda's capital, Kigali. Later that day, Umuseso deputy editor McDowell; journalists Mugisha, Munyaneza, and Kabonero; and driver Budeyi Nassan went to CID to inquire after Sebufirira and were also detained.

Sebufirira said the journalists were separated and interrogated about an article in the seized edition of the newspaper, which questioned why certain senior army officers were being demobilized. He said the article also questioned why taxpayers' money had been used to send Major General Kyumba Nyamwasa, director of the national security services, on a U.K. training course if he was being demobilized.

A police spokesman told CPJ that the article was "aimed at inciting sectarian behavior." The journalists denied this claim.

The journalists, who said that the police hit them, questioned them about their sources, and gave them water but hardly any food, were released today without charge.

Local journalists and human rights activists expressed fears that Umuseso was being harassed for taking a critical stance toward the government. Umuseso former editor Ismail Mbonigaba, now in exile, was imprisoned for more than a month early this year, charged with "inciting division and discrimination" for reporting that former Prime Minister Faustin Twagarimungu would run against President Paul Kagame in elections. Three Umuseso journalists were also imprisoned for two weeks in 2002.

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