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Rwandan Government Criticized for Repression During Lead Up to Election

It's the final few days before Rwanda holds a presidential election. But in the lead up to the vote, many international watchdogs have mounted criticism over what they call a climate of repression in the East African country.

Eleneus Akanga is a Rwandan journalist who now lives in Britain. Before leaving his country, he worked as a reporter for Rwanda's pro-government newspaper New Times for three years. He says he was fired from his job after writing a report that was critical of attacks against journalists. He says he was accused of being a spy for neighboring Uganda.

Later he started a new paper, the Weekly Post, which he says was closed down the day after publication began.

"I later found myself being followed up by state agents who thought I was an enemy of the state and, fearing for my life, I fled the country after someone tipped me that the state was moving in to charge me with treason," said Eleneus Akanga. "So I fled the country and came over here where I sought asylum and I have lived here since 2007."

He says it's difficult for people outside Rwanda to understand the complicated media situation in the country. The media was a driving force in the country's genocide 16 years ago. In 1994, 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.

He says the government has worked hard to make sure the media is never used again as a tool to spread violence.

"Ever since the current government came into power, they have been trying to make sure that the media is not again used in the way it was used prior to the genocide," he said. "But in doing so they have decided to crack down on dissent and criticism."

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame is widely expected to win the election on August 9. He has been at the helm in Rwanda since his party took power following the genocide.

Although most observers say he will win the election easily, critics say he has used the months leading up to the election to clamp down on dissent.

In June an ex-army official who had fallen out with Mr. Kagame was attacked and wounded in South Africa.

Later the same month a journalist was shot dead. He had published an article linking the incident in South Africa to Rwanda's security services.

In July, the vice president of an opposition party in Rwanda was found dead.

The government has strongly denied responsibility for any of these incidents.

But it has publicly clamped down on newspapers and figures who it says are divisive. Two newspapers were suspended in April. They were accused of insulting the head of state, sowing discontent in the army, and causing panic. And opposition politicians have been arrested and blocked from running in the election, accused of "genocide ideology" and "divisionism".

Henry Makori is from the free speech campaign group The Media Institute, based in Nairobi.

He says laws in Rwanda that are designed to root out antagonism between Hutus and Tutsis have lead to repression.

"It is a unity that clamps down on those ones who do not speak the language that the government wants to hear," said Henry Makori. "So it's an excuse really that eventually does not mean well for the growth of democracy in Rwanda."

Rwanda's Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo this week told an audience in London that Rwanda is "committed to free expression", but will not allow "hate media" to operate. She said Rwanda wants to have a free press but it has to be careful not to allow the media to have a "free ride" inciting violence and not respecting the rule of law.

But Makori says for democracy to prosper in Rwanda the media as a whole needs major reform.

"The media is Rwanda is still very young," he said. "Even these two publications that were shut they are not necessarily very regular and their coverage seems to be mostly very radical. Apart from what the government publishes in the New Times, which is sometimes also not very regular although it is supposed to be a daily paper, there are no newspapers that are clearly objective."

But he says there is no doubt that despite the media problems in Rwanda, Mr. Kagame's government has done a huge amount to propel Rwanda into the 21st century.

Major leaps have been made in education and agriculture and the country's economy grew by at least 6 percent last year. Moreover, half the country's lawmakers are women - a statistic that beats every other country in the world.

Rwanda's growth has partly been due to the financial support given by foreign powers. Half of government spending is paid for by foreign donors, led by Britain, the European Union and the United States.

Carina Tertsakian is from the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

"There are Western countries such as the US, the UK, other European countries that have long supported this government in Rwanda and been close allies," said Carina Tertsakian. "And that support, that assistance, has been valuable in helping Rwanda in terms of development, in terms of the economy and infrastructure and so on. But these governments also have a responsibility not to turn a blind eye to these human rights violations."

We were unable to obtain an interview with Rwanda's Media High Council for this report. The foreign minister cancelled a number of planned interviews with VOA during her visit to Britain this week.