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Rwanda Dismisses Claims of Media Supression

  • Michael Onyiego

In recent weeks, Rwanda has come under intense international scrutiny over media suppression before Monday's presidential election. But the central African nation says such claims are misguided and overblown.

On Monday, August 9, Rwanda will hold its second presidential elections since the 1994 genocide. President Paul Kagame, elected to his first term in 2003 with over 95 percent of the vote, is widely expected to retain his post after Monday's vote.

Mr. Kagame has effectively governed the country since his Rwandan Patriotic Front overthrew the government and ended the genocide 1994. The popular president is credited with spurring economic development and attracting international investment while reducing corruption and improving infrastructure in the country of just under 11 million.

But the government and the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front party have come under intense fire from international human rights and media groups, who say opposition media and political parties are being actively suppressed to keep Mr. Kagame in power.

In April, opposition newspapers Umuseso and Umuvigizi were handed a six-month suspension by Rwanda's Media High Council. The outlets were charged with "inciting insubordination in the army and police" as well as publishing "information that endangers public order." The ban came weeks before the deputy editor of Umuvigizi, Jean-Leonard Rugambage, was killed by unidentified gunman in Kigali. Rwandan officials have denied involvement, but the paper's editor said Rugambage's death was the result of coverage critical of the government.

In July, the owner as well as employees from opposition publication Umurabyo were detained after the newspaper published an article condemning Mr. Kagame accompanied by a picture of the President in front of a Nazi Swastika.

Members of the publication were charged with inciting public disorder and ethnic division, but the research director for Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, Gilles Lordet, says media supression has ruined the possibility of free elections.

"The situation and the conditions are not there for fair and honest elections in Rwanda," said Lordet. "We saw that through the pressure that exists on the journalists and the violence against journalists. We do not think that the conditions are fulfilled to have regular elections in Rwanda and that, in a way, the donors are just supporting this situation."

Just last week, Reporters without Borders condemned the Media High Council for suspending arround 30 media outlets days before the election. On July 26 the Council published a list of outlets who had complied with regulations outlined in Rwandan law to operate as a legal media entity. According to the media freedoms group, the list had effectively banned those not listed, including the Voice of America, from covering the presidential poll.

In a statement Saturday, the Media High Council dismissed those claims, saying the deadline for registration, originally in November of 2009, had been moved 3 times at the requests of the media. The Council said registration forms would continue to be accepted to accommodate organizations not already registered.

The Media High Council has been a focal point of the criticism leveled at Rwanda. The group has a central role in enforcing controversial Rwandan laws against hate speech and genocide denial. But executive secretary Patrice Mulama says that such measures are necessary given Rwanda's divided past.

"Hate speech is never appropriate in any democracy, in any society, because it burns; it kills people. That is why, worldover you have laws against discrimination, laws against segregation, laws against hate speech and stuff like that. You must remember that this is a society that is recovering from a genocide, in which hate speech and racist speech had a very strong role in orchestrating," said Mulama.

It is difficult to judge the extent of media supression in Rwanda. While many believe legitimate opposition has been silenced by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, President Kagame seems to enjoy wide support from average citizens.

The suspension of media outlets has focused international attention on the central African nation, but some observers have compared papers like Umuseso, Umuvigizi and Umurabyo to sensationalist tabloids.

The Media High Council has also pointed out that 95 percent of the unregistered outlets have no staff and do not regularly publish news.

Whether or not the censorship is real, international criticism is unlikely to change the outcome of the upcoming election. Without any serious opposition registered for the race, President Kagame is almost certain to be returned to power on Monday.