By Lonnie Isabel
Since the genocide of 1994, Rwanda has made strides in reconciliation between the Hutu majority, who perpetrated the mass killings, and the Tutsis, who had lived previously in relative peace with their neighbors in that fertile, beautiful land.
President Paul Kagame, a lean, rather severe former Tutsi military commander, has ruled Rwanda for the past decade. Kagame has been lauded in the West for his push on economic development and for holding together the fragile nation in the center of a region of Eastern Africa that has been caught in a decades long vortex of refugees, rebel forces, rape as a weapon of war and tribal and territorial conflict. Almost 1 million Tutsis and their supporters were killed during the genocide. Millions of Tutsis have returned, and an estimated 2 million Hutus fled to neighboring countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some of them have also returned.
Kagame is credited with overseeing the rebuilding of the genocide-crushed Rwandan economy, bankrolled with large U.S. and other western grants. Kagame is avidly seeking to develop the agro-processing, tourism and regional transportation sectors.
But in one important area, press freedom, Kagame is beginning to get very bad reviews.
Freedom House, a press freedom advocacy organization, publishes an annual detailed rating of countries. Rwanda is ranked 181 out of 196 states, tied with Somalia and Syria, two of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. Among sub-Saharan African countries, Rwanda ranks above only Equatorial Guinea and Eritrea, two countries where repressive governments own and control all media.
Charles Kabonero can testify to that. “I was forced into exile. The paper I owned and ran was suspended. … It’s all about the escalating autocracy and political intimidation by the Kagame regime — a regime that is allergic to criticism of any magnitude.”
Kabonero, a Rwandan journalist, was forced to flee to neighboring Uganda two years ago; he had become a target of the Kagame regime’s extreme distaste for a probing, investigating, free press. He and his colleagues at Umuseso, once the country’s leading independent newspaper in the official Kinyarwanda language, fear for their lives if they return. And even in Uganda, they must take stringent security measures.
Kabonero, just over 30 years old, was managing editor of Umuseso. The paper had been under scrutiny and attack since 2003. Kabonero faced criminal charges twice for investigative stories on nepotism, corruption and embezzlement in the government. He and deputy editor Didas Gasana could face up to 20 years in prison on defamation charges. The government seems content to eliminate all but controlled journalism through suspensions, fines and intimidation. Kabonero was blocked from coming to the U.S. to become the City University of New York’s third International Journalist in Residence, a program created with the Committee to Protect Journalists to give an opportunity for journalistic growth and support to exiled and threatened journalists. The U.S. Embassy in Kampala advised Kabonero to go Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, to apply for a visa, an act that Kabonero strongly thought would place his life in danger.
The leading government owned newspaper, FOCUS, has trashed his reputation, saying alternately that he was a shill of British journalists, that he left not out of fear but because of a financial scandal at the paper and that he fled after impregnating a young married woman.
Kabonero said this is all rubbish.
He and his colleagues decided last fall, with a western grant, to start an English language newspaper, Newsline, and a related Web site that would cover Rwanda in absentia. Copies were stopped at the Rwandan border, but Newsline covered the Rwandan elections and provided lively commentary on the country’s politics and news.
But Kabonero, like all journalists, wants to cover his country firsthand.
“All my life as a journalist in Rwanda, I have never expected pats on the back from the government, knowing what it represents — sheer dictatorship,” he said in an e-mail. “I, as a matter of fact, got used to kicks in the teeth as it’s part of the game. What bothers me is that I’m not in my country, not with my family, not doing my job as I wish, not developing my career as I would wish, but it’s only the beginning. I don’t feel finished, no. I haven’t thrown in the towel, no.”
Kagame has shown aggressiveness even toward western reporters who criticize his government. He told the Financial Times earlier this year that westerners can’t take the high ground, after abandoning Rwanda during the period of genocide and war. “I don’t think anybody out there in the media, U.N., human rights organizations, has any moral right whatsoever to level any accusations against me or against Rwanda. Because when it comes to problems facing Rwanda, and the Congo, they were all useless.”
When British journalist Ian Birrell tweeted that these comments showed that Kagame was “despotic and deluded,” the president shot back from his own Twitter account to Birrell: “You have no basis for your comments and you don’t kno what you r talking about me or RW. I will only hold all that in contempt.”
“It shows both his paranoia, his non-acceptance of criticism and that he is tech saavy,” said Tom Rhodes, CPJ’s East Africa representative. “Umuseso was the one voice that was looking critically at the government and he forced it out of existence.”
Charles Kabonero, virtually stateless since his Rwandan passport has expired — and he must go back to Kigali to renew it — wants U.S. journalists to know that they have an important role in bringing press freedom to Rwanda.
“What is happening in Rwanda must be highlighted in its true colors,” he wrote. “The regime in Kigali is spending millions of American aid to cover the nasty deeds of the regime. America today is seen as betraying Rwandans by hugely supporting the autocracy in Kigali.”
I had the privilege of editing Dele Olojede’s brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning series six years ago on the how Rwanda almost miraculously has held together, despite the horror of that period of genocide, when the world turned away.
Paul Kagame is the prime architect of that miracle.
As journalists and citizens of the world, we can’t turn away again as the regime intimidates, exiles and imprisons reporters and editors, like Charles Kabonero. It’s no way to build a functioning democracy.
In Chicago, in June, President Kagame addressed thousands of supporters and Rwandans in a celebration of Rwanda Day. To loud cheers, he said, “Our democracy, our quest for transformation provides us with the desire, the energy to give ourselves that dignity. When we give our citizens access to health, education, food security, tools of communications … there is no basis for any accusations. No one can teach us about the importance of human rights … we know it more than anyone.”
Kagame is right. The blood of Rwandans was shed after human rights were obliterated by machete-wielding Hutus rose to the cries of radio journalists seeking revenge and death to the Tutsis they believed had oppressed them. At that time the press, mostly radio, played a huge role in escalating the violence. It is time now for the Rwandan government to understand that the press can play an important role in transforming the country’s economy and its recovery.
Lonnie Isabel is director of the International Reporting Program at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism in Manhattan. He is a former deputy managing editor of Newsday, where his duties included supervising foreign news coverage. He will write here occasionally about international journalism issues involving people of color.