Kagame’s government is uneasy with vocal media ahead of elections
Rwanda will hold presidential elections in August and there are concerns that President Paul Kagame may be targeting vocal media outlets as part of his strategy to win another term in office. In March, the President called a press conference in Kigali where he angrily accused some journalists of being either genocide deniers or terrorism accomplices, mainly because they report about opposition leaders.
The President singled out the Nairobi-based regional weekly, The East African, which he described as “insulting” and “offensive” for interviewing opposition politician Victoire Ingabire, president of the FDU-Inkingi, who has said she will run against Kagame.
Kagame’s attack on the weekly, owned by Nation Media Group, though expected, indicates the Kigali regime’s extreme sensitivity to criticism and a desire to suppress independent media not only in Rwanda but also in the region.
In the press briefing on March 3, an upset Kagame even went on to name and berate the reporters who conducted the interview for the regional weekly as Mr. Charles Kazooba and Esther Nakazzi. He wondered why Rwanda is covered by “Ugandan journalists in Uganda…based in Uganda”.
“For me, that suggested [that] we are probably less East African…or the intention was to make Rwanda less East African,” he said, in reference to the five-member East African Community.
In the lengthy interview published in the weekly’s February 15-20 issue, Ms. Ingabire heavily criticized the government, with most of her attacks directed at President Kagame and his Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) party.
Kagame said that the story seemed to portray Rwanda as a country where people are “tight-lipped” and Ingabire as their “saviour”. The interview also insinuated Rwanda was a kingdom with Kagame at the helm, he charged.
With sneering laughter belying his irritation, Mr. Kagame said that the “worst of it, probably something that is equally offensive: Why is it that people would cover Rwanda by Ugandan journalists in Uganda, based in Uganda?”
The Nation correspondent in Kigali, Mr. David Kezio, interjected, distancing himself from the interview. He said it had been conducted by the Kampala Bureau and “probably by email”. Mr. Kezio also said he would check with “my superiors, Your Excellence”.
The President asked the reporter to tell NMG that “in my own right I thought it was offensive”. He added: “But under freedom of expression, we can take that…but we can also express ourselves”.
The giant Nation Media Group is already in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania and is working on entering Rwanda, but the road seems bumpy and thorny because of strictures imposed by the regime.
At the same time President Kagame had harsh words for the publisher of a leading critical tabloid, Umuseso. He accused Charles Kabonero of being a terrorism accomplice.
It was his first reaction to allegations which arose several years ago that Kabonero was in contact with exiled former military officer Abdul Ruzibiza, with plans to cause chaos in Kigali.
Some journalists, the President said, have some cases to answer for in relation to Gen. Kayumba and Col. Karegeya. “There are those who found Karegeya in South Africa and spoke to him. There are even those who went there but have not returned,” he said, in reference to Kabonero who is said to be in South Africa seeking asylum to North America or Europe.
Journalist Jean Bosco Gasasira also went to South Africa and is alleged to have met the fugitive former director of Rwandan intelligence, Karegeya, and even carried out an exclusive interview with him revealing how and why he had left Kigali.
Still without naming Kabonero, the President said there were some journalists who were found with documents detailing a plan to cause state insecurity.
But in an interview with ET, Kabonero described Kagame’s allegations as unfortunate and ridiculous not only to him as a person but also to the journalism profession.
“It is within my journalism profession to carry out an interview with anybody and anywhere without the President’s consent. I can even meet Bin Laden, leave alone military generals who are Rwandans and need their side [of the story] told, away from Kagame’s spin doctors’,” said Kabonero.
Kagame’s attack on the East African weekly followed sharp commentaries against the publication in the New Times daily which is associated with the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front party. The writers condemned the weekly for publishing the opinions of Ingabire whom they reviled as “a revisionist and genocide denier.”
In another ominous sign, Arthur Asiimwe was sacked as the Managing Editor of the New Times, Rwanda’s only daily that is the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front party’s mouthpiece. His departure came hardly five months after he took office and only weeks after being sworn in as chairman of state-dominated media regulatory body, the Media High Council.
In the last issue of ET, Asiimwe said he was thinking of setting up an investigations desk to pin down the government when it failed the people. That may have ruffled faethers within the RPF.
Said to be well connected to the powers behind Rwanda’s only English language daily, Asiimwe had replaced Zimbabwean Grace Kwijeh who was kicked out late last year for unknown reasons. His controversial sacking followed publication of a story of the arrest of a senior government official, Charles Karake, which sources said the management had not wanted publicized.
Initially, management had ordered the sacking of the reporter who did the story but Asiimwe, as the Managing Editor who had approved publication, reportedly made a brave decision to shoulder the responsibility and shield his junior. The small story which prompted such a big managerial decision had scant information and did not even state reasons for Karake’s arrest.
“The story had nothing controversial - maybe police’s and prosecution’s failure to commit themselves on the arrest. There must be a different story behind the arrest as the accusations are also not worthy denying someone a bail,” one court reporter said.
Even after Asiimwe was sacked, New Times continued to cover the Karake case, like on the day he was denied bail after an unlawfully lengthy stay in police cells. The court ruled out his request for bail, saying he could interfere with police investigations.
In the story about Karake’s arrest, the ME had concealed the writer’s name but management did not buy the idea. Yet in the follow-up report, the story had a by-line. Asiimwe’s departure from New Times left panic in the newsroom, as it closely followed another journalist’s month-long suspension.
No one wanted to comment on Asiimwe’s sacking, not even saying a word about which story got him into trouble. It was as though his colleagues saw the injustice in the decision but were as well worried about their own jobs.
When contacted by ET, Asiimwe was hesitant to comment on his sacking, saying he did not want media attention now that he was out doing other things. He referred our writer to the New Times CEO or chairman of the company’s board that made the decision.
“I wouldn’t want to appear in the media since now I am out doing other things. Why don’t you ask the CEO or the board that made the decision or maybe ask the journalists since everyone knows the reason?” he said. The CEO, Joseph Bideri, did not answer his cell phone.
Collin Haba was appointed to replace Asiimwe.
With the media situation looking grimmer by the day, a rights monitor with a group critical of Rwanda was threatened with deportation after her work permit application was found to have gross anomalies. Immigration officials revoked the work permit for Ms Carina Tertsakian, the country director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The officials told state radio on March 11 that Ms Tertsakian, a British national, had to secure new accreditation documents or other measures would be taken against her when her visa expired in three months.
The communications manager of the Immigration Department, Innocent Niyonsenga, was quoted as saying that the signatures on Ms Tertsakian’s accreditation documents were suspicious – prompting speculation they could be fabricated.
Ms. Tertsakian was told that she must find the appropriate documents as soon as possible to avert any repercussions, according to Radio Rwanda.
The development comes in the wake of a bitter exchange between government and the rights group over a February 10 statement accusing the authorities of oppressive actions against the opposition.
HRW had expressed concern that opposition party members were facing increasing threats, attacks, and harassment in advance of Rwanda’s August presidential election.
Members of the FDU-Inkingi and the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda - new opposition parties critical of the government - had suffered serious incidents of intimidation by individuals and institutions close to the government and the ruling RPF party. One member of the FDU-Inkingi was beaten by a mob in front of a local government office. The attack appeared to have been well coordinated, suggesting it had been planned in advance.
“The Rwandan government already tightly controls political space,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “These incidents will further undermine democracy by discouraging any meaningful opposition in the elections.”
On several occasions, HRW said, the government had used accusations of participation in the genocide, or “genocide ideology,” as a way of targeting and discrediting its critics.
In 2009, several meetings of the Green Party and the PS-Imberakuri - another opposition party - were broken up by police, in some cases violently. Both parties have since found it difficult to obtain the official authorization to hold meetings. PS-Imberakuri finally managed to register in November. The Green Party has still not succeeded, despite several attempts.
In late 2009, Bernard Ntaganda, leader of the PS-Imberakuri, was summoned before the Senate to answer accusations of “genocide ideology” in connection with public statements he had made criticizing the government.
Political opposition activities were also tightly restricted during the September 2008 legislative elections, when RPF candidates won 79 percent of the vote. European Union observers noted procedural irregularities in over half the polling places, RPF domination of the media, and the absence of political plurality, due in part to the fear of “genocide ideology” accusations.