Tag Archives: “press freedom”

The week that was. The election that wasn’t.

These last days in Rwanda – a time I’d hoped to devote to cathartic reflections, soulful musings, and rampant promiscuity – have instead been gobbled up by the dreadful realities of packing up a life into two musty old suitcases and hoping it weighs less than 30 kilos. This isn’t how I expected to spend my last week in the Great Lakes, a region to which I’ve grown greatly attached in the past year. Already I’ve had to cancel my farewell dinner with His Excellency PK (“No prob. Keep up the good work,” read the presidential text); and most of the tender moments I’ve shared with friends around Chez Mzungu have been equally devoted to backing up my hard drive in the event of a carjacking outside of Jo’burg’s OR Tambo International Airport.

A shame, too, with these having been some of the more eventful weeks in what’s becoming an increasingly eventful country. (To the friend who once called Kigali “the Morgantown, West Virginia of Africa,” one can only say, “Take that!”) Caught up in a whirlwind of revisionism, divisionism, and pre-electoral hooliganism, Rwandan authorities shuttered two independent news weeklies; arrested two high-ranking military officers on charges of “misuse of office” and “immoral conduct”; and arrested opposition candidate Victoire Ingabire on charges including collaborating with a terrorist organization and denying the genocide, before releasing her the following day.

“Whew!” would be an appropriate response here.

Umuseso editor Didas Gasana, seen just days after the ruling.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, last seen on President Kagame’s Christmas list, criticized the ruling by Rwanda’s humorless – yet inadvertently hilarious – Media High Council for its six-month suspension of the vernacular weeklies Umuseso and Umuvugizi, on the grounds of “insulting the head of state, inciting the police and army to insubordination, and creating fear among the public.”

“By silencing these two local-language newspapers the Media High Council is robbing Rwanda voters of crucial alternative voices during the presidential election campaign,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes said. “The ruling is a thinly disguised attempt at censorship. If the election is to be seen as free and fair, the council must reverse this ruling and ensure that all media are able to cover the campaign.”

Umuvugizi editor Jean Bosco Gasasira, in an interview with the Voice of America, criticized the Media High Council – which he described as a “political tool” of the government – for violating its own media law in dealing with the two maverick newspapers.

“When a newspaper in Rwanda, according to the new media law, writes anything inciting or anything bad, the Media High Council summons them and forces them to make correction of that. When they refused, they are at least suspended for two months. Then if they repeat that, you suspend them for six months. Neither Umuseso nor Umuvugizi have never been summoned by the Media High Council officially nor suspended for two months which shows that this was politically motivated. They just want to eliminate us before the election campaign,” Gasasira said.

The ever-reliable texas in africa, noting that Rwanda’s High Media Council had suspended the two papers on the grounds of “erroneous content,” observed that “if “erroneous content” is now grounds for shutting down Rwandan media outlets, [she] look[s] forward to the closure of the government daily, the New Times.” That august paper, meanwhile, in reporting on Canadian Governor General Michaëlle Jean’s recent comments that “journalism is an ultimate tool that strengthens democracy and helps establish a society that respects the rights of all,” took a self-congratulatory tone that mistakenly assumed she was referring to it.

Rwandan opposition figures turned out in Kigali to protest Ingabire's arrest.

Ms. Ingabire, meanwhile, who has been ruffling feathers in Kigali since she arrived in January, seems to have finally gotten what we all knew was coming. The public campaign against her has been on a rolling bubble these past three months; two weeks ago, her fate seemed sealed when the president publicly took her to task during the annual genocide commemoration week.

“Some people just come from nowhere … useless people,” said Mr. Kagame. “I see every time in pictures some lady who had her deputy – a genocide criminal, talking about ‘there is genocide, but there is another’… that is politics. To that we say a big ‘no.’ And if anybody wants a fight, then we will give them a fight.”

The charges against her, one judicial official told the AFP, include “collaborating with a terrorist organisation, dividing the population, denying and downplaying the genocide.” Chief prosecutor Martin Ngoga told the Christian Science Monitor that “the prosecution’s case against Ms Ingabire is based on facts and evidence.”

“The actions that led to these charges against Ms. Ingabire are extremely serious and cannot go unpunished,” he added.

Augustin Nkusi, Mr. Ngoga’s spokesman, recently told Radio Netherlands that Ingabire was collaborating with the FDLR in eastern Congo.

“There is also evidence that she is busy creating an irregular armed force parallel to the regular national forces to come destabilize the country,” Nkusi added. He also accused her of “throwing about statements of an ideology of genocide.”

On an unrelated note, Rwanda’s electoral commission announced this week that it was preemptively announcing the results of this August’s presidential election in May.

“We just thought we’d save Rwandans the trouble of waiting on long queues this election day,” an official told This Is Africa. “Go out, enjoy the weather – it’s always spring in Kigali.”

The official added, “Have you seen our gorillas?”

UPDATE: For an excellent unpacking of RPF baggage relating to the recent military arrests, My Name is Not Mzungu posts here and here.

Lies, machinations, and writing about Rwanda.

Last week the Committee to Protect Journalists – no friend to the Kagame regime – issued its latest critique of the Rwandan government, this time taking aim at the sloppy attempt to link the recent grenade attacks to rogue elements in, of all places, the Rwandan press corps.

In a press conference last week, Kagame accused Lt. Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former ambassador to India and chief of staff, and another senior ex-military officer, Patrick Karegeya, of plotting the first grenade attack. The president went on to say that journalists had met with Karegeya in South Africa prior to the attacks, leaving a not-so-subtle implication of impropriety. “There are those [journalists] who found Karegeya in South Africa and spoke to him. There are even those who went there, but have not returned,” he said.

No journalists were named, but Charles Kabonero and Jean Bosco Gasasira, founders of two private vernacular weeklies, knew that the president’s message was aimed at them. Both papers had conducted interviews with Karegeya. For his part, Kabonero makes no apologies. “I believe that Kagame is educated enough to know that, as a journalist, if I had a chance to meet [Osama] bin Laden I would not hesitate to do it [in order to] to get news. It’s the job. So, yes, I met Karegeya for journalism-related purposes,” he told CPJ.

'I am a great friend of the press,' Kagame has never been quoted as saying.

His Excellency PK’s distrust of the press – which at times veers toward violent suspicion – is perhaps only fitting. A man who’s managed to fine-tune Rwanda’s only English-language daily into a series of government-issued press releases can be forgiven for doubting the integrity and independence of other media bodies. Kabonero, meanwhile, refused to comment on whether his “journalism-related purposes” for meeting with Karegeya included plotting more grenade attacks – a favorite pastime of nefarious Rwandan journalists.

Meanwhile, something ambiguously referred to as the “Rwandan media fraternity” took pains to distance itself from Godwin Agaba, a journalist who fled to Uganda after alleging persecution by the Rwandan government over his links to renegade Lt.-Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa.

“The self-exiled Agaba recently faked his disappearance and announced that he had gone missing because of allegedly writing about General [Nyamwasa],” reported The New Times this week.

“In the wake of so many lies being peddled through international media organisations and groups, the Rwanda media fraternity is compelled to reveal and chronicle the deeds of Godwin Agaba, better known for theft, extortion, blackmail, impersonation and lack of respect for the journalism profession,” reads a statement from the media fraternity.

“It is unfortunate that Agaba’s lies and machinations have caught the attention of regional and international media watchdogs who have taken them hook, line and sinker,” adds the statement.

Agaba, a correspondent for the Uganda-based online news source 256news.com, has alleged that the Kagame government itself is behind the recent grenade attacks in Kigali. In an interview with the Berkeley-based KPFA Radio you can listen to here (starting at 1:12 mark), Agaba insists, “There is nobody from outside who is doing those bombings.”

This bears a little scrutiny. The suggestion that the government was behind the recent attacks and, in the words of KPFA correspondent Ann Garrison, “staging the bombings as an excuse to arrest its enemies,” is one that has been bandied around a bit in Kigali in recent weeks. But it seems less plausible than other likely scenarios – e.g., internal dissension in the RPA ranks – if simply for the fact that all eyes are on Rwanda right now, and the backlash from any government involvement in these attacks would be nothing short of disastrous for the Kagame regime. I refuse to believe that such a savvy government would take such a wild gamble – especially when it’s already proven it can get away with a continued crackdown on the press and opposition groups with little more than a firm slap on the wrist from the international community.

It discredits Agaba as a journalist to make such a bold accusation, without anything to back it up. (If anyone has seen any reports from Agaba which include evidence to support his claims, let me know.) Likewise, his insistence during the interview that the potential for election-year violence “could likely be more dangerous than what happened in 1994” seems entirely at odds with what every reasonable observer has to say about Rwanda.

Kagame on a previous visit to the CNN studios.

His Excellency PK, meanwhile, took his, ahem, charm offensive to the CNN airwaves this week to assure Christiane Amanpour and millions of viewers that he’s not the autocrat rights groups would make him out to be. (Download a podcast of the full interview here.)

“If you are talking about people in the human rights community from outside… I have an issue with [the criticism],” Kagame said, 16 years after he was hailed as a hero for ending a genocide that killed at least 800,000 people.

“You tend to make a judgment of a country, 11 million people, on what a couple of people have said and [they] don’t take into account what Rwandans say.”

Kagame added, “Nobody has asked the Rwandans…it’s as if they don’t matter in the eyes of the human rights people. It’s our own decisions in the end.”

This is a typical bit of sophistry by the president – a man whose sole defense against his foreign detractors remains the argument that it’s Us against Them. “You foreigners,” goes this line of reasoning, “can never understand what it means to be a Rwandan. You also, FYI, abandoned this country when we needed you most. Thus you should kindly keep your unsavory opinions to yourself, continue to invest in the Rwandan renaissance, and try not to poke around too much in issues that might affect this government’s sterling reputation/credit rating.” (For an example of the sort of hard-nosed reporting this government loves to see from the international press corps, click here.)

It’s a beautiful sleight-of-hand trick, both casting the president as the legitimate spokesman of the entire Rwandan population, and dismissing any niggling, ethnicity-related questions about how many of his countrymen would agree. And I think it plays upon, more subtly, the insecurities that many foreigners – journalists, diplomats, aid workers, scholars, et al. – have in this country: that we are always, despite our best intentions, on the outside looking in. (I base this both on my own personal experiences, and on countless conversations with the sort of people I would feel confident quoting as “experts” in my reporting.)

I bring this up now because I’ve spent quite a bit of time these past few weeks struggling to figure out just how to write about Rwanda. Since last fall, when I first proposed a story about Kigali to my travel editor at The Washington Post, I’ve written, scrapped, re-written and trashed a half-dozen well-meaning drafts that just didn’t seem to get to the heart of what it means to live in Rwanda today. This is a country of divisions, after all, Hutu-Tutsi (still, despite the government’s best intentions) and Before-After being the most obvious examples. But the reporting on this country is equally, and just as deeply, divided. If you’ve followed the news out of Rwanda for the past few months, or the past year, you’re likely to think that this is either a country of economic and technological marvels boldly striding into the 21st century, or an autocrat’s playground built on plundered wealth, where a silenced population cowers under the weight of a repressive regime. The reality – as with all countries, of course – lies somewhere in between. (Most Rwandans, I suspect, are more scared of hunger and disease than a lack of political representation in parliament.) But how to tell that story – how to tell any story?

It was heartening, then, as I wrung my hands in despair over another failed draft, to come to the final pages of Africa’s World War, by Gerard Prunier – a man who ranks among a very small handful of elite academics in the Great Lakes region. In the closing chapter, as he punctuates a magisterial account of how the Rwandan genocide and its immediate aftermath were the sparks that ignited an already combustible situation in the Congo, Prunier examines the difficulties that even he himself has struggled with in confronting the genocide and its legacy.

Intellectually the hegemonic position of the Rwandese genocide as a global frame of explanation was all the more tragic because it was almost impossible to achieve a reasonable modicum of objectivity on the topic. I have often asked myself why it was that there could be so many white Hutu and white Tutsi, so eager to prove the virtue of their adopted camp and the evil of the opposite one….

Why so much misguided passion? And especially by academics who could have been expected to be more objective on such a foreign topic?

I wouldn’t want to overestimate the value of what I write; but in looking at some of the heated debates I’ve had on this blog, or at my continued bumbling through what is, on the surface, just a travel story, I see strains of that same “misguided passion” – the need to justify and legitimize a point of view that, admittedly, shifts according to which way the wind is blowing my contrarian sails. Thus a fellatory forecast of Rwanda’s bright ICT future has me huffing about human rights, while a screed that makes Kigali sound like an African Pyongyang has me extolling the virtues of, yes, the Rwandan renaissance. In Rwanda, you feel compelled to take sides – so much so that, at times, I feel like I’m arguing less out of conviction than out of a need to have that conviction. But most days, everything is a bit muddled in my head. When writing about Rwanda, when talking about Rwanda, when living in Rwanda, we’re still grappling with the ghosts of a past we only dimly understand.

There is a tendency of the human mind to strive for coherence. Many writers routinely warn about “complexity” and “contradictions” and then immediately proceed to re-create a coherence that contradicts the wise warnings they have just uttered. And the situation in the Great Lakes is so horribly complex, so contradictory that one does not have to be American to fall victim to the syndrome of desperately wanting to find “good guys” and “bad guys” who could restore meaning and clarity to such moral gloom.