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Rwanda: press freedom but no press

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Rwanda; Where There is Press Freedom But No Press
New Vision


President Kagame argued that he has never arrested nor sent anyone to arrest any journalist

   On May 17, 2002, I was declared a persona non grata (undesirable
person) in Rwanda and consequently deported by the Rwandan government authorities.

   Many people have asked me a lot of questions about Rwanda, but the
most common is about press freedom in Rwanda. In this article, I would like
to make a response to the question of press freedom in Rwanda.
   I was not an important person in Rwanda. However, given the fact that
I was the publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Rwanda Herald, Vice Chairman of Independent Publishers of Rwanda (an organisation of publishers of private newspapers), I must say that I had already cut out for myself a modest role to play in the development of the media in Rwanda.
   I also had a sizeable number of friends in the diplomatic community,
government and the military as well as contacts in the civil society. In
Rwanda, having contacts in these groups is pivotal in the media
industry.
   The story of my deportation that appeared in the Ugandan press and
aired on international and local radio stations quoted AFP, the French News
Agency.
   AFP said that I was deported because of articles in The Rwanda Herald
that were critical of government's detention of former President Pasteur
Bizimungu.
   My deportation order was written in French; and because I had become
worn out due to psychological torture, I never bothered to read it.

   However, during a six-hour interrogation on May 7, 2002 at the
Department of Immigration, I was asked questions like: What nationality are you? How long have you been in Rwanda? Do you have a resident permit? Do you have a work permit?
Where is your resident visa? Is The Rwanda Herald registered? Where is
the commercial registration for The Rwanda Herald? Were you screened when you entered Rwanda?
   After the interrogations, the Inspector of Immigration, a man called
Benoi(t), told me to stop publication of the paper. This is when I realised that
the problem was actually the newspaper, not me or my 'illegal stay in
Rwanda' as Police spokesman Inspector of Police, and my friend Tony Kuramba was quoted as saying.

   A report by Rapporteurs Sans Frontiers late last year called President Paul
Kagame a predator of press freedom. My Oxford Advanced Learners
Dictionary (International Students Edition) defines the word "predator" as an
animal which kills and eats other animals.
   At a press conference he hosted in his Presidential Palace in
December last year, President Kagame argued that he has never arrested nor sent any one to arrest any journalist. He asked journalists to vouch for his innocence.

   However, I personally think that the cries for press freedom in
Rwanda may divert people from the broader aspects of civil liberties. In the
absence of organised political opposition, press freedom should be viewed as a function of the civil society.

   In the absence of organised political opposition, like is the case
with Rwanda, the growth (or lack thereof) of the media industry plays a very
pivotal role in putting up an image of a free country. It is therefore not
sufficient to look at press freedom in Rwanda as a functional estate of the civil
society only. To get a better picture, you would still have to compound it with
an element of real politick.

   Rwanda does not have a tradition of popular civic attitudes. After
1994 though, there was an unprecedented popular interest in public affairs
that led to the formation of several newspapers and NGOs.
   Although the government tended to espouse a relatively liberal attitude
towards the press, the vortex point in this espousal was an exacting
conformist editorial line commiserate with what the government thought was the correct political line of thought. This state of affairs still obtains today.
   The issue of press freedom in Rwanda is actually a political issue.
The politicians are very much interested in press freedom even more than the
journalists themselves.

   The political establishment is interested because the degree of press
freedom is an important factor for a contemporary society to qualify as a
democratic one. The irony about it all is that the political establishment want to
own that press freedom. So, down there, we have a situation where there is press freedom (owned by the state) but no press.
   Let me give you a little bit of background to the situation in
Rwanda.
   Almost all Rwanda's development budget is donor-funded and over 70%
of the recurrent expenditure is donor funded too. There is no political
opposition; and if I am let loose, I will be audacious as to say that there is no press too.
There is therefore no essential factors for internal policy dialogue and
bargain. This means that the only socio-political dynamic interaction
that exists in Rwanda is between the donor community and the political
leadership of the state.
   You would be safe to argue that the donor community has sort of taken
over the space for the internal socio-political dynamics.
   In fact the interaction between the state and the donor community has
had more influence on the actions of the government than the internal civil
and socio-political dynamic forces like the media.
   Otherwise what we have in Rwanda is a situation where the
socio-political development process lacks a forum for internal policy dialogue and bargain.
   So is there press freedom in Rwanda? The answer is yes and no. Yes,
there is press freedom in Rwanda. The fact that a foreigner like me was allowed to publish a newspaper in Rwanda can justify the existence of relative
press freedom.
   However, the only problem is the sustainability of that freedom. The
relationship between the government and the press (and the civil society
in general) in Rwanda engenders the thinking that press freedom can only
exist on the whims of the state; which is very dangerous.
   Government is very sceptical, almost paranoid, about the private
media. Because of the residual carry-over of government's askance attitude
towards the press due to its role during the genocide, the press in Rwanda exercises a lot of self-restraint. It is this self-restraint on the part of the press
and the civil society in general that enables the government to be complacent
about the relative press freedom that exists.
   Otherwise government's seeming liberal deportment to civic attitudes
lacks poise and pose.
   In fact one may argue that whereas the government wants to be seen as
opening up, it has failed or lacks the political will to live and let the press
live.
   The problem on the part of the press, though, is the weak
socio-political circumstances in which this relative freedom exists.
   So, in spite of the emergence of several newspapers, there is still a
conspicuous thread of institutional and partisan political influence in
the publications.
   Rwanda is a politically charged and sensitive country; everything
there is political and therefore the emotional feelings of the heart rule over
the brain.
That is why public organisations do not advertise to reach an audience,
but to sponsor a particular publication.
   Suffice to say, Kagame has not shut down any newspaper. The irony
however, is that there is press freedom but no press.

 

(Asuman Bisiika)

Copyright 2002 Africa News Service, Inc.
Africa News, August 8, 2002 Thursday