- The independent Rwandan weekly 'Umuseso', which goes furthest in challenging the country's heavy-handed media policy, is threatened with temporary closure. One of its reporters has had to flee the country because the paper refused to reveal its sources. Media watchdogs hold that press freedom is declining in Rwanda.
The Rwanda Independent Media Group publishes two of Rwanda's most outspoken newspapers, the English-language 'Rwanda Newsline' and the more widely read Kinyarwanda-language 'Umuseso' weekly. While a growing number of private newspapers are appearing in Rwanda, harsh government restrictions lead most of them to exercise self-censorship. 'Umuseso' however leads the way in critical reporting.
On 18 August, at the Information Minister's request, Rwanda's High Council of the Press (HCP) called on 'Umuseso's editor to "acknowledge his mistakes," publish corrections and reveal his sources for a series of controversial articles accusing the national assembly vice-president of plotting to seize power.
On 13 September, after 'Umuseso's editorial staff refused to comply, the Council formally asked the Information Ministry to suspend the Rwandan newspaper for four months. The Ministry has not yet responded, but is widely believed to follow by the recommendation.
Meanwhile, on 26 August, 'Umuseso' reporter Tharcisse Semana, one of the controversial articles' authors, fled the country after being repeatedly followed and harassed. On the night of 25 August, Mr Semana claims, 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.
Mr Semana managed to leave Rwanda the same night and is now in Uganda, where he remains concerned for his safety should he return to his country. He says he had previously been the target of threats because of his coverage of former Hutu president Pasteur Bizimungu's trial and has feared for his life for a long time.
According to the Paris-based media watchdogs Reporters sans Frontières (RSF), these new attacks on 'Umuseso' illustrate the current "declining press freedom situation in Rwanda." 'Umuseso' has also been the target of arrests and confiscations in the past, but the threat to close the newspaper and the attacks on Mr Semana were an escalation of an already serious situation for the independent press in Rwanda.
- It is pointless for the regime to go on about its commitment to a free and diverse press if the reality is quite different, RSF said in a statement released yesterday. "If President Paul Kagame's government wants to continue boasting about its support for press freedom, it must give journalists guarantees that they will be able to work safely," the French group added.
RSF further protested the government attacks on the country's leading independent media. "Umuseso's refusal to reveal its sources is no reason to close it down, even provisionally," the group concluded.
President Kagame's government is frequently accused of using Rwanda's history of "hate media" - extremist broadcasters and newspapers propagating the 1994 genocide - to justify the harsh practice of the country's media law. 'Umuseso' has on several occasions seen copies of its newspaper seized and journalists arrested for publishing articles that the government claims are provoking ethnic divisions.
Today also marks the tenth anniversary of the imprisonment of 'Radio Rwanda' journalist Dominique Makeli, who is accused of inciting genocide in his reports, according to the Kigali state prosecutor. Mr Makeli, who is currently being held in Kigali central prison, however never has appeared in any court.
According to RSF, which today called for Mr Makeli's release, the prosecutor's allegations have no basis in reality. In May 1994, while covering what was believed to be an apparition of the Virgin Mary in Kibeho, western Rwanda, Mr Makeli reported that she allegedly said, "The parent is in heaven." The prosecutor insisted that, at the time, this was taken to mean, "President Habyarimana is in heaven."
This again was interpreted as a message of support for the former President and, by extension, the policy of exterminating Tutsis. RSF says it had 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," the group said.
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