Regardless of Rwanda’s presidential election outcome, one thing is certain – an independent press did not monitor the election results. The government has systematically silenced the independent media in the run-up to the election. In the lingering shadow of the genocide, 16 years on, the government has ensured there is little room in Rwanda’s political landscape for a free press.
The Rwandan government has the unenviable but important task of guaranteeing freedom of the press while ensuring that the Rwandan media is never again allowed to fan the flames of violence, as the Rwandan hate media notoriously did in 1994. But it is not clear that the current administration, cruising to an easy re-election, is approaching this duty honestly or critically. Instead, government-censorship and self-censorship have become the norm.
Some argue that Rwanda’s tortured history justifies and even necessitates government crackdown on the independent media. Hate media played a galvanizing role in the perpetration of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which neighbors raped and killed neighbors, priests put down bibles and picked up machetes, children were thrown into latrines, and 800,000 were slaughtered, some by killers doing the bidding of radio and newspaper journalists who spewed an inconceivable hate.
In 2003, I worked as a legal intern on the “hate media” trial in the prosecutor’s office of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda with a dedicated team of senior lawyers and a kind Rwandan fellow legal intern. He had returned to Rwanda after the genocide to help bury the dead, some of whom were his friends at Butare’s National University of Rwanda, where countless students and faculty were killed. The trial resulted in the international conviction on genocide charges of the three men who controlled the radio station, Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), and Kangura newspaper – media outlets whose significant role in helping to incite and sustain the genocide is firmly etched in history.
RTLM reached millions of Rwandans, and genocidaires manning the roadblocks where many victims were killed listened religiously to the station. RTLM chillingly and explicitly called for the extermination of all Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu, broadcast the names and whereabouts of individuals and their families while encouraging listeners to find and destroy them, and provided jubilant updates when the devilish deeds were done. Listening to tapes of those broadcasts is enough to make one’s blood run cold. Kangura newspaper helped whip anti-Tutsi sentiment into a frenzy and had an infamous cover suggesting the machete was the only way to deal with Tutsi.
One is hard pressed to find a legal jurisdiction in the world that would protect the incitement to murder propagated by RTLM and Kangura, and I remain proud of the tiny contribution I made to the international prosecution of these hate media leaders.
The legacy of RTLM and Kangura casts a long shadow over the current debate on freedom of the press in Rwanda. But we must not forget the other face of the Rwandan media before and during the genocide: independent journalists who courageously criticized the genocidal government and the government-sanctioned hate media were often killed or hunted during the genocide. Yes, there was a Hassan Ngeze, the notorious editor of Kangura, but there was also an André Sibomana, the courageous independent Rwandan journalist who spoke against the genocidal regime and hate media, and escaped assassination attempts until his death from illness in 1998. Thus, we must also interrogate freedom of the press in Rwanda, bearing in mind the historical truth of the independent journalists who lost their lives during the genocide, courageously speaking out against tyranny.
In present day Rwanda, government censorship of the media is all too common. A week prior to the August 9 presidential election, Rwanda’s Media High Council banned upwards of 30 radio and newspaper outlets. The government has jailed editors and journalists of the independent newspapers Umuseso and Umuvigizi, both of which have received six-month bans. Authorities seized copies of The Newsline, printed by Umuseso journalists in exile, and even briefly shut down the BBC’s service in Kinyarwanda, the national language. Watchdog organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders have long sounded the alarm of Rwandan government attacks on the independent media.
Freedom of the press, in both international law and in jurisdictions that revere freedom of speech, is not absolute, nor should it be. This right carries special responsibilities because the exercise of fundamental freedoms may have a deleterious effect on the rights of others. However, the lack of an absolute right to press freedom does not allow the Rwandan government to censor all critique of the status quo. The government must carefully and critically reflect on how to guarantee freedom of the press while protecting the population from incitement to violence without embracing knee jerk crackdowns on all criticism of the ruling party.
Lasting reconciliation in Rwanda may depend in part on the development of a society in which there is public space for dissent. The creation and maintenance of a political space that allows for an independent media that questions and challenges the government, makes for a more robust society. Certainly, media outlets that call for violence or attempt to incite violence, à la RTLM and Kangura, should not be tolerated. And the independent Rwandan media must continue to strive to move beyond tabloid journalism. But a one-sided, pro-ruling party interpretation of current events that ignores the existence of grievances and shuts out independent voices will only breed resentment. It may result in Rwandans mouthing government rhetoric, without necessarily reorienting themselves.
If the Rwandan government wants to ensure there will never again be a Hassan Ngeze, they must allow more André Sibomanas to work without fear of persecution. The Rwandan government can fight hate media by allowing truly independent media, even those that criticize the government, to flourish.
Chi Mgbako is clinical associate professor of law and director of the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic at Fordham Law School in New York City. In 2003, she was a legal intern on the "hate media" prosecution team for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.