7 November 2007

Rwanda: Financial Mess Real Reason Umuseso Had to Close Down

Charles Kabonero's announcement last week that he would no longer publish his newspapers came a few days after members of the press had a private, two-day meeting with President Kagame - a meeting that was held at the request of the journalists.

Charles Kabonero recently announced that he ceased publishing Rwanda Independent Media Group.

As has been widely reported in the news, Kabonero and a fellow called Furaha Mugisha, too of the so-called Rwanda Independent Media Group (Rimeg), said they ceased publishing their newspapers because they felt intimidated by the government. They said the government is accusing them of working with negative forces.

At the same time, these very gentlemen issued ultimatums to the government - the same one they claim has intimidated them - to the effect that it should come up with proof to substantiate its accusations against them. "We are not going to work again until the government rescinds its baseless accusations against us," Kabonero was quoted as saying.

There are those who were taken in by the claims of Messrs Kabonero and Mugisha, such as some gullible members of the public who only ever read the generally spurious content of Umuseso or Newsline and take it at face value and have no idea what makes the owners of these publications tick. And of course there are those who are always ready to believe the Umuseso gentlemen because that is what they prefer to do - an example being international media rights organizations, such as Reporters Without Borders.

Mr Kabonero however was not content only with claiming government is intimidating him. He spent a good part of last week telling his various friends within Kigali and beyond that in the two-day meeting journalists had with President Kagame, the latter instructed government officials to give huge sums of money to all media houses in Rwanda except Rimeg. This, said Charles Kabonero, was so that the President would isolate him and set every newspaper and radio station upon him.

I got this piece of news from one of the few remaining employees of Umuseso, Kadaffi Rwango.

Did you believe this? I asked the man. He said he thought Kabonero was telling the truth. And no doubt some of his contacts in foreign missions in Kigali have been told this yarn, and believe it.

Anyone who knows Kabonero well knows the young man has a very uneasy relationship with truth and facts. But by telling people that the President is openly bribing every journalist (including birds of a feather like Bosco Gasasira of Umuvugizi and Jean Gualbert Burasa of Rushyashya), it is possible Kabonero may not imagine he is telling a lie. Probably he may have slipped over, into active self-delusion.

I asked myself, does the young man's highly inflated sense of self-importance - no doubt grown from all those years of adulation from international media or human rights groups, diplomats in Kigali and some local readers of his publications - now make him imagine the Head of State is desperate to silence him and so will resort to bribing everyone to turn against him?

This immediately brings to mind a problem that has been of urgency in this country for the past several years: the fact that it is individuals like Kabonero who run newspapers and write in them and shape public opinion.

But now, to get to the real reason why the "Rwanda Independent Media Group" cannot operate anymore: it and its owners are in a financial mess. Nothing more, nothing less.

Kabonero, Mugisha and Didas Gasana (another member of their group) are fellows who are always playing hide and seek with creditors - people they always con into lending them their money with stories about how they are publishing very profitable newspapers that need an immediate cash infusion to go to the printing press after which "we will pay you the money when Umuseso (or Newsline or Rwanda Championi) hits the streets because it will be sold out very quickly..." or some other similar stories.

Only a few weeks back Furaha Mugisha was in the news when the Police locked him up for issuing a bouncing check to one of the creditors. The only thing that saved Kabonero, who was one of the signatories of the check, is that he ran away and hid himself while one of his friends desperately scrounged for money to pay off the irate creditor. That is how these people operate.

It got to the extent where they used to hide away from a former landlord of Rimeg's, one Paul Rusirari, so as not to pay the rent. After six months of this, Mr Rusirari threw them out of his building and they scrambled around looking for some smaller place and conned more people out of their money so as to pay the rent.

One might think these people behave the way they do because they have no money. But, according to some former Umuseso employees, including Kalavel Dusabimana and Baudouin Muhayimana, at one point Rimeg could make as much as Rwf 10 million in a month in profits. A former journalist with Newsline who requested that his name be kept out of print told me "those fellows blow up money with unbelievable extravagance on their various girlfriends, taking them on trips outside the country and staying in big hotels. They are highly excited the moment they get the millions."

By the time Kabonero and Mugisha announced they were closing down Rimeg in protest, they had been reduced to the level of putting up office furniture and equipment as collateral for a loan from one of their friends. The man, one Richard Kayigamba, lent them Rwf 5 million on the agreement that if they did not repay it within three months, he would cart away everything.

It is highly unlikely that the fellows will get the money to repay Mr Kayigamba. They owe millions to employees in unpaid salaries, and most of these have left. At one time Rimeg employed more than 20 people. Now only Kabonero, Mugisha and a fellow called Didas Gasana and one Manzi remain.

Extortion and blackmail, which were big sources of revenue for these gentlemen, are no longer viable options.

In a meeting in one of the retreats in Akagera, Ministers and other big officials who had made it a habit to succumb to the extortion and blackmail and pay for it with public money were exposed and one or two lost their jobs. Now they would rather have scandalous things published about them than pay Kabonero for his silence. The writing was on the wall for the young man and his friends.

A few ministers may have made public pronouncements that some journalists were working with negative forces and made angry remarks about the said journalists. But for one to claim they are closing down because of what the ministers' said - which is not policy at all - is as disingenuous as it is silly for publishers to claim they are not working anymore because they have been intimidated but in the same breath begin issuing ultimatums and orders to the same government they say is intimidating them.

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