rwanda shuts down two independent media outlets
I find the "anonymous" comments that my Rwandan security minders leave on this blog to be pretty hilarious at times. They make unsubstantiated claims in the face of overwhelming evidence, accuse me of defending those who would perpetrate genocide and other crimes against humanity, and say that I don't do my research.
(It's not a big deal; I'm a grown woman and I can deal with crazy commenting. You should read my hate mail, most of which is hilarious and completely unprintable on a blog people read at work.)
But sometimes these comments make me wonder what kind of bubble Rwanda's government has built for itself. If the RPF is going to claim that it isn't suppressing free speech and freedom of the press in advance of the elections, then they're going to need to explain this. From the Committee to Protect Journalists (emphasis mine):
The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns today’s decision by Rwanda’s Media High Council to suspend two independent weeklies just months prior to presidential elections. At a press conference, attended only by state broadcasters and the pro-government radio station Contact FM, the Media High Council announced an immediate six month suspension of private vernacular weeklies, Umuseso and Umuvugizi.Breaking your own laws to close down a publication that's critical of the RPF? For a length of time that just happens to extend right past the election date? Isn't that a little obvious, guys?
The council accused Umuseso of insulting the head of state, inciting the police and army to insubordination, and creating fear among the public, council official Wilson Karamaga told CPJ. The council, a nominally independent body heavily influenced by the government, did not link these accusations to any particular article in Umuseso and did not specify the reasons for the suspension of Umuvugizi, local journalists said. Umuseso and Umuvugizi may challenge the council’s suspensions in court, he said.
The six-month suspension will ensure both independent papers are unable to cover the presidential elections scheduled for August. Both papers are known for critical coverage of the ruling party, the Rwanda Patriotic Front.
...The council can legally suspend a weekly publication for a maximum of two weeks unless the paper is seen as a repeat offender. Umuseso Deputy Editor Didas Gasana said the paper has never been suspended before and should not face a six-month suspension under the law.
Supporters of Rwanda's regime will be quick to point out that Umuseso runs questionably-accurate stories about Hutu killings in Zaire, the use of fake genocide survivors by the RPF, and other poorly substantiated claims. This is a fair criticism; I'm certainly not going to leap to the defense of poor journalism.
What I will leap to defend, however, is the idea that a free press is necessary in a modern democracy. We have all kinds of crazy in the American media, and many of them say things that are obviously false on a daily basis. But we don't stop them from saying what they want to say, because the free exchange of ideas is absolutely crucial to the functioning of a democratic regime.
Rwanda's genocide ideology law and other laws limiting free speech are written in such broad strokes that it is virtually impossible not to be accused of insulting the head of state, inciting others to violence, or denying the genocide if one dares to question the RPF's policies and practices. That's not democratic. Every regime makes mistakes, and there's nothing wrong with pointing it out when they do. Encouraging openness and transparency in government almost always makes regimes more responsive to the needs of their citizens - all of their citizens.
Pretending that opposition doesn't exist or repressing every dissenting claim, meanwhile, is a recipe for disaster as Hutu resentment builds, splits in the ruling party mount, and donors become increasingly cautious about trusting the country's leadership.
Meanwhile, the question lingers: as architects of the peaceful, successful New Rwanda, why are the RPF afraid to have an open and honest debate about the country's past and its future?