Rwanda intimidates press critics with arbitary arrests

Meera Selva
Monday 10 October 2011 04:31

The bar at the Hotel des Milles Collines in Rwanda's capital of Kigali is buzzing on a Tuesday night. Air-kisses flurry about, a singer pelts out pop ballads, and waitresses serve grilled fish and chilled wines.

The bar at the Hotel des Milles Collines in Rwanda's capital of Kigali is buzzing on a Tuesday night. Air-kisses flurry about, a singer pelts out pop ballads, and waitresses serve grilled fish and chilled wines.

The customers - expatriates and fashionable Rwandans - are cheerful and talkative, competing for an audience in the balmy air. This is the new Kigali - a vibrant town trying to rebuild itself, to cope with the horrors of 1994, when 800,000 people were killed in a genocide that engulfed the entire country.

But in this buzzing city, Charles Kabonero, editor of Rwanda's only independent newspaper, Umuseso, has just been released after yet another arbitary arrest - his fifth stint in jail since he took control of the newspaper six months ago. He is the fourth editor the newspaper has had since its creation in 2000. All three of his predecessors fled the country after being arrested several times and receiving death threats.

"After all the editors fled, I found myself the most senior person at the newspaper so I became editor," said 23-year-old Kabonero, who is still a journalism student at the National University in Rwanda. "Each time an edition comes out, we get three or four summons to report to the police station, the newspaper is seized, or I get arrested. I am getting used to it."

The last time, Kabonero was held for six weeks. Each time he was arrested, he was not given access to a lawyer, given any sort of trial or told how long that he would be held for. Each time, after his release, he has received death threats.

The fate of Umuseso editors highlights the increasingly autocratic nature of the Rwandan government. Last month, members of Liprodhor, a civil society group that has criticised the government, fled the country after members of parliament called for their execution. The government accused them of breaking a law banning divisionism - the promotion of ethnic differences. The law was intended to stop individuals or organisations stirring up the kind of racial hatred that led to the genocide, but has been used to quell any sort of dissent. Sarah Green, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International, said: "The Rwandan government is manipulating the concept of genocide to attack its critics, even if its critics are its own citizens." Since 1994, more than 120,000 Rwandans have been imprisoned without trial.

The prisoners include perpetrators of the genocide and Hutu rebels, but also people who have committed minor offences and those such as Kabonero who have spoken out against the government. Just one public demonstration has been held in Rwanda since 1994, and that ended with police shooting two students protesting about language tuition.

Francine Rutanza, the executive secretary of human rights group LDGL, who has received death threats, said: "I survived the genocide, and I will be forever grateful to this government for ending those murders, but now I fear for my life again. It is strange that I feel so scared of the government that I believed once saved me."

Despite this, the government of President Paul Kagame continues to enjoy the support of Western governments. Britain's Minister for International Development, Hillary Benn, said this year that "the country is unquestionably moving in the right direction", and Britain continues to be Rwanda's biggest bilateral donor. In 2004-05, the Department for International Development will give £42m in aid. The US is expected to give £25m. But little is going towards rebuilding a vibrant civil society.

"After the 1994 war, Rwandan society was dead," said Ms Rutanza. "All the free-thinkers had been killed, all the people who would build a country were in exile, all the books about our history, our culture, had been burnt. We have to rebuild piece by piece, but that does not seem to be anyone's priority."

The lack of a free media has stunted Rwanda in many ways. Kigali has just four theatres, and none dares show anything other than government-approved plays. No gallery will exhibit anything that is seen to criticise the regime. The Rwanda Artists Association is a locked-up, corrugated-iron shack.

It is easy to see why the government fears the media. In the run-up to the 1994 massacres, a magazine called Kangura, or Wake Him Up, published articles urging Hutus to arm themselves against the Tutsis. As the killings began in April 1994, the privately owned Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM) urged Hutus to kill all Tutsis, who were referred to as "snakes" and "cockroaches". It also broadcast information on where Hutu mobs could find Tutsis.

Last December, the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda ruled that Kangura and RTLM journalists were partly responsible for the genocide. Kangura's editor, Hassan Ngeze, and RTLM's founder, Ferdinand Nahimana, were given life imprisonment for "poisoning of minds".

But Kabonero, a Tutsi, says that the role of the media in the genocide cannot be used to stifle the media now. The demand is there - Umuseso's circulation is 25,000 compared to government papers with 8,000. "In 1994, most independent journalists, who spoke for moderation, were killed," said Kabonero. "We remember them as heroes now, and do not want this government to sully their memory."

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