Media Activists in Rwanda

Sixteen years after the Rwandan genocide, the country has made immense progress in areas of economic development and increased political stability.  Per capita gross domestic product has nearly tripled, national health insurance has been implemented, education access has improved, there is broadband internet access in major cities and the death penalty has been abolished.  These improvements are remarkable for a country that less than two decades ago was in the throes of a brutal genocide.

Amidst all of the successes though, the Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his ruling government have been criticized of stifling press freedom.  Leading up to the Presidential elections in August of this year, the independent press was increasingly restricted.   In April, two of the nations’ leading independent weekly newspapers were suspended for six months. The Umuseso and Umuvugizi newspapers were cited with “violation of the media law and inciting public disorder”. Deputy Editor of Umuseso, Didas Gasana left the country for fear of being arrested and launched a new independent weekly, “The Newsline”.  The website has been blocked within Rwanda, and while Gasana has been able to distribute it over email, only 300 copies of each edition reach Rwanda.

Kagame’s restriction of media outlets has been noted by Reporters Without Borders 2010 World Press Freedom Index, which lists Rwanda as one of the ten most repressive countries towards journalists. According to the site, Rwanda is on the list because of “the closure of independent publications, the climate of terror surrounding the Presidential Election and “Umuvuvgizi” deputy editor Jean-Leonard Rugambage’s murder in Kigali.”  The Rwandan government dismissed the ranking as “unfounded and misleading”.  Kagame has refuted the allegations of media suppression by reminding people of the hate media that emerged during the genocide of 1994.  He believes some control needs to be exerted over the media so as to prevent a repeat of that situation.

An article in the Christian Science Monitor agrees with Kagame, believing Rwanda was ranked too low.  Jina Moore, the author of the article, contends that Rwanda should not be in the bottom ten with countries like Somalia; claiming that journalists in Somalia are “fleeing very real, dangerous and ongoing violence.” I don’t know what that looks like to Moore, but journalists being killed in Rwanda certainly counts as real and dangerous violence to me.  According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 17 journalists have been killed since 1992 in Rwanda, while 34 have been killed in Somalia.  While the number is indeed higher in Somalia, it’s an issue that should be taken seriously in both countries.

Kigali Wire, a blog run by Graham Holliday out of Kigali has a list of media outlets and blogs based in and related to Rwanda.  The list of blogs is quite substantial and left me wondering how many of the bloggers were writing within Rwanda and how many were writing from outside the country. Holliday, who himself is British, states that the media environment in Rwanda is more welcoming to foreign journalists than to Rwandan journalists. 

So what is the situation for media activists and journalists in Rwanda? Is it one of oppression and violence or is it one of careful monitoring to ensure hate filled rhetoric doesn’t consume the media? I believe there is a way to allow everyone to express their opinion while preventing another genocide.  Kagame and his government must find the fine line that falls on.

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