A monopoly of radio and TV, insipid print media and systematic harassment of the only independent newspaper mean that, 10 years after the genocide of the Tutsis, Paul Kagame's country continues to be one with no press freedom.
Despites its claims to support freedom of the press, the Kagame government continues to behave like a predator. Ten years after the genocide of the Tutsis, in which "hate media" played such a grim role, Rwanda is still a country where press freedom does not exist. The privately-owned broadcast media are still controlled on the grounds that a new "monster" like the notorious Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) must not be allowed to emerge.
The weekly Umuseso, the only independent, national newspaper, has been closely watched and harassed. It has been repeatedly prosecuted, issues have been seized, and one editor after another has been forced to resign or go into exile, but it has miraculously survived in an environment of poor newspaper sales and police surveillance that silences any opposition initiative. As it is printed in Uganda, where costs are lower and printers are not intimidated by the authorities, its issues have often been confiscated without good reason at the Rwandan border.
Umuseso's current editor, Charles Kabonero, narrowly escaped imprisonment in November 2004. He could have received a four-year prison sentence and an exorbitant fine if convicted on the charges brought against him as a result of a libel suit by parliamentary deputy speaker Denis Polisi over an article in the 1-7 August issue. Examining Polisi's influential network of political friends and his possible political ambitions, the article was headlined "Who really rules, Kagame or Polisi?" It looked at Polisi's power as the ruling party's secretary-general and former member of the Tutsi refugee diaspora in Burundi, and it revealed that he rented offices in a building to several parastatal bodies. On 23 November, a court finally acquitted Kabonero of "sowing division" but found him guilty of "libel and attacking the dignity of a high official," sentencing him to pay a symbolic fine of one Rwandan franc plus 8,600 Rwandan francs (about 13 euros) in damages. Polisi appealed against the verdict.
But the pressure on Umuseso did not just come from the courts. Umuseso reporter Tharcisse Semana fled the country on 26 August after being repeatedly followed and harassed in other ways. He said that on the night of 25 August, he was followed by several unidentified persons who threatened him with violence and tried unsuccessfully to steal a document from him that would have been compromising for a senior government official he had been investigating. He managed to escape from Rwanda the same night together with one of his colleagues. He is now in Uganda and is still afraid to go back.
Two journalists still in prison
Two journalists are still in Rwandan prisons awaiting trial, possibly by traditional "gacaca" courts whose establishment has been much delayed. Radio Rwanda journalist Dominique Makeli has been held in Kigali central prison since 1994. Kigali state prosecutor Sylvaire Gatambiye told Reporters Without Borders in October 2001 that Makeli was accused of inciting genocide in his reports. While covering an appearance of the Virgin in Kibeho, in the west of the country, in May 1994, Makeli reported that she was supposed to have said: "The parent is in heaven." The prosecutor insisted that, in the context of that moment, this was taken to mean, "President Habyarimana is in heaven" and was interpreted as a message of support for Habyarimana and, by extension, the policy of exterminating Tutsis. Reporters Without Borders obtained a recording of this programme and played it to Rwandans who were in the country at the time of the genocide. None of them thought Makeli was fomenting hate.
Tatiana Mukakibibi was a producer and presenter of music and entertainment programmes at Radio Rwanda. She was on a reporting trip to Cyangugu, in the east of the country, when the genocide began on 6 April 1994. She sought refuge with other journalists in Bukavu, in Democratic Republic of Congo, on 4 July and returned to Rwanda on 10 August, to Kapgayi, near Gitamara, where she worked with Abbot André Sibomana (the former editor of Rwanda's older newspaper, Kinyamateka, and a Reporters Without Borders – France Foundation laureate, who died in March 1998). Police detained her at her home in Ntenyo (Gitarama) in early October 1996 and took her to the local prison where she is still held in very bad conditions. In the months following her arrest, she was accused of arranging the murder of Eugène Bwanamudogo, a Tutsi who made radio programmes for the agriculture ministry. Someone who lived with Mukakibibi at the time of the genocide told Reporters Without Borders she could not have killed Bwanamudogo because he died in the first few days of the genocide when she was in Cyangugu. Furthermore, one of Bwanamudogo's brothers reportedly told this source that he was killed by soldiers.
- 2 journalists were in prison
- 2 were physically attacked
- 1 was threatened
- 1 newspaper issue was seized.
"I've no idea what tomorrow will bring"
Tharcisse Semana, a young journalist with the weekly Umuseso, left Rwanda in a hurry in August 2004 after being followed one night. He has found temporary refuge in Uganda and is waiting to know what country will take him in.
When the High Press Council decided on 18 August to target our newspaper, I decided I would not longer sleep in the same place every night. I left my office at 11 a.m. on 25 August to go into town to photocopy a document about misappropriation of public funds in which a senior Rwandan official was implicated. I was inside the shop when someone suddenly jostled me and snatched the document from me. But a man managed to stop him before he left the shop and recovered the paper.
When I arrived home in a taxi that evening, I was accosted by two men who were using a car with no number plate. They tried to take me away by force. I struggled and ran away. I sought refuge with a friend who works in a hotel. I'd been there just half an hour and I'd barely had time to tell him what had happened when three men arrived at the hotel. My friend recognised one of them as a member of the intelligence services. I negotiated with them in an attempt to avoid being arrested but I had to run away again. Later I was having a drink in town with another friend when I saw the same three men outside the bar. They had located me again.
I left in a hurry and resolved to skip the country at once. I stayed in hiding all night, trying to organise my getaway to Uganda by phone with the help of a few people in Kagali. A friend decided to come with me. I left at dawn. Since then I have been registered with the UN High Commission for Refugees in Kampala. While waiting to leave the region, I'm being watched by the Ugandan police, who look askance at us, and by Kigali's agents, who are everywhere in this town. We are living together, with other Rwandans, waiting for a decision, a place to go. I have no more money, I depend on the goodwill of international organisations and I've no idea what tomorrow will bring.