Rwanda: The right of freedom of expression and of free media remains in jeopardy

Dec 4th, 2017 at 21:03 | By | Category: News analysis, Top news

The International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists and Media Workers set on the 2nd of November of each year, represents a unique opportunity to think of the horrible attacks journalists encounter whilst carrying out their work around the world. Recognizing that the work of journalists often puts them at specific risk of intimidation, harassment and violence, the date was also chosen by the UN General Assembly in commemoration of the assassination of two French journalists, Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont in Mali on November 2nd 2013.

In a 2015 address to the UN Security Council, Christophe Deloire, Director-General of Reporters Without Borders (RWB), confirmed that in the past decade, more than 700 journalists lost their lives while carrying out their duties. This is an astounding average of one death per week. According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), only 1 out of 10 killings of journalists is investigated. In Rwanda, like in other developing countries within Africa, impunity for crimes against journalists not only limits freedom of expression but also jeopardizes democracy and compromises hopes for peace, unity and reconciliation and sustainable development.

Freedom of press in Rwanda remains muted today, as the government continues to control the media, spreading fear among journalist, resulting in actual and self-censorship. Article 38 of the Constitution of the Republic of Rwanda (2003 and revised in 2015) provides, “Freedom of press, of expression and of access to information are recognized and guaranteed by the State.” In reality however, these principles are often overruled by laws that criminalize all press commentary which, according to the government, insults the political leadership, breeds hate or genocide ideology, incites insurrection or trouble amongst the population, offends the established Government, threatens national security, or is deemed as genocide denial. Rwanda’s Media Law is equally repressive. Article 83 on penalties for crimes committed through the press includes vague language that allows authorities to take criminal proceedings against journalists who for instance, publish any materials considered to be in “contempt to the Head of State” or “endangers public decency”. The Rwandan penal code also contains provisions on defamation and privacy offenses meaning that that journalists are also threatened with possible imprisonment for doing their job.

Troublingly, these vague provisions mean that journalists in Rwanda are restricted from articulating critical views of the government which are meant to advance the country’s social, legal, economic and political life. As a result, both ordinary people and journalist cannot exercise their freedom of speech or expression in the country. Unsurprisingly, the truth embargo faced by the media has raised serious concerns and questions about the both the 2010 and more recently, August 2017 presidential elections in Rwanda, with Amnesty International releasing a report seeking to identify how two decades of silencing dissent in Rwanda has set the scene for fair elections.

Jean-Claude Mulindahabi is a Rwandan journalist who worked in numerous media houses as well as Rwanda Television but is now living in exile, in France. In an interview with JamboNews, he confirmed, “any journalist who tries to write or publish critiques against the government of Rwanda is harassed, illegally arrested, forcedly disappeared, or even killed”. Different media have already been suspended in Rwanda such as BBC, Umuseso and potentially, Voice of America (VOA). The circumstances surrounding the suspension of BBC Rwanda, remain particularly troubling.

In October 2014, BBC Kinyarwanda broadcasts were suspended following the broadcast of a documentary titled ‘Rwanda’s Untold Story’, on the grounds that the program was in violation of Rwandan laws on the denial of genocide, revisionism and incitement of hatred and division. As reported by The Guardian, “Rwanda’s Untold Story sparked controversy by suggesting President Paul Kagame may have had a hand in shooting down his predecessor’s plane, a crash that triggered the mass killings. [The documentary] also quoted US researchers who suggested that many of the more than 800,000 Rwandans who died in the 1994 genocide may have been ethnic Hutus, and not ethnic Tutsis as the government maintains.” Prior to this, the government had already suspended BBC service in Kinyarwanda in April 2009, after the broadcast of a preview of a radio program that was to include a debate on pardon between Rwandans after the genocide. Suspension of a debate, particularly a broadcast in the country’s most widely spoken and understood language, makes an open secret of the country’s true stance on freedom of expression and opinion.     

Anjan Sundaram

Anjan Sundaram, award winning journalist and author of Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, highlighted the troubling reality of freedom of speech and expression in Rwanda.  After starting a journalists training programme in Rwanda in 2009, Sundaram reported that almost every reporter he instructed was arrested or forced to leave the country. In his book, he provided a firsthand look at the rise of a dictatorship, the fall of free speech and a society caught in a tightening web of strict media control. Sundaram confirmed that more than 60 journalists have been harassed whilst others fled the country. The implications are far reaching as many struggle to continue their profession because of the diverse problems a life in exile brings. “These restrictions are not exclusive to the media but every person or civil society organization that may expose its violation of human rights including international organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Reporters Without borders, ect…”, affirmed Jean-Claude Mulindahabi.

Nor are these restrictions exclusive to journalists within Rwanda. Article 451 of the Rwandan penal code has a long reach which seeks to silence Rwandans working in media related professions and living in exile. The article provides that any person who spreads false information with intent to create a hostile international opinion against the Rwandan State shall be liable to between 10 years and life imprisonment. For Mulindahabi, it is easy to accuse a journalist of spreading false information with intent to create a hostile international opinion and the legal provision only seeks to intimidate exiled journalists so as not to publish criticisms that the RPF does not want to be known, at the international level.

In 2017, the World Press Freedom Index, published annually by NGO, Reporters Without Borders, ranked Rwanda as 159 of 180 countries for press freedom. The country is grouped with 50 others where press freedom has worsened. The following cases exemplify the downward trajectory of press freedom in Rwanda:

In the run-up to the 2010 election, repression of the right to freedom of expression intensified. After receiving threats, Umuvugizi editor Jean-Bosco Gasasira (who had published several articles that were critical of the RPF, including one that discussed nepotism within the part) and Didas Gasana, editor of Umuseso, editor fled Rwanda in April and May 2010, respectively. – Setting the scene for elections; Two Decades of Silencing Dissent in Rwanda, Amnesty International 2017

 Jean-Leonard Rugambage et Charles Ingabire

Jean-Léonard Rugambage, journalist and deputy editor of the independent newspaper Umuvugizi, was shot dead on June 24 2010 in front of his home portal in Nyamirambo, a suburb of Kigali. Jean-Léonard Rugambage was investigating a shooting on June 19, 2010 that targeted former Rwandan army chief of staff Kayumba Nyamwasa, who lived in exile in Johannesburg. Umuvugizi had published an on-line article on 24 June 2010, the day of Jean Leonard Rugambage’s murder, alleging that Rwandan intelligence officials were linked to the shooting. In the days before his murder, Jean Leonard Rugambage had told colleagues that he felt that the surveillance on him had intensified.Urgent Action, Amnesty International 2010

Charles Ingabire, a journalist living in exile in Kampala was assassinated on November 30, 2011. Ingabire was editor of Inyenyeri News, an online publication critical of the government of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Although a murder investigation was initiated by the Ugandan police, the police have never released a report of their investigation into the murder. – BBC News, 2011

John Williams Ntwali, one of Rwanda’s few investigative journalists, was arrested in late January 2016 and accused of allegedly raping a minor. Judicial officials later changed the charge to indecent assault and eventually dropped the case for lack of evidence. Ntwali was released after 10 days. Prior to his arrest, he had been investigating a number of sensitive issues, including the circumstances surrounding the 2015 death of prominent businessman Assinapol Rwigara. – World Report, Human Rights Watch 2016

On February 3 2016, police confiscated the computers of East African newspaper journalists Ivan Mugisha and Moses Gahigi. They had been investigating cases of alleged tax evasion and corruption within the government.World Report, Human Rights Watch 2016

On August 8 2016, John Ndabarasa, a journalist at Sana Radio, went missing. The police said they had opened an investigation, but his whereabouts remained unknown at time of writing. Ndabarasa is a family member of Joel Mutabazi, a former presidential bodyguard sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014 for security-related offenses. – World Report, Human Rights Watch 2016

As we celebrated last month this year’s day to End impunity for crimes against journalists, we invite all Rwandans to honor the journalists and media workers who have been imprisoned, disappeared, or lost their lives in the line of duty. The highlights of prolific killings of journalists above, exemplify the reality facing journalist in Rwanda. To enable true freedom of expression in Rwanda, it is imperative that media laws as well as the penal code are reviewed.  Equally important, is the role of the Courts in acting as a check and balance of Executive power by interpreting legal provisions in a manner that reflects internationally recognized standards of freedom of opinion and expression as outlined in international law and Conventions such as Article 19 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976). Further, the Rwandan authorities must conduct impartial and effective investigations into all alleged crimes against journalists and media workers and bring perpetrators of such crimes to justice. Without these advancements, Rwandan citizenry and media workers will continue living in fear of vocalizing dissenting opinion contrary to the government and practicing self-censorship in order to avoid intimidation and harassment, with implications not only for democracy, but for the country’s social, legal and economic development.

Turinimana Gatsinzi Egide

Edited by Rosine Uwineza




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