The Enigma of Press Freedom in Rwanda

President Kagame, for the umpteenth time, made the Reporters without Borders list of global predators of media freedom alongside renowned dictators, terrorists and drug lords. One would wonder why Paul Kagame, a man who has won a lot of kudos for his heroic role in rescuing Rwanda from the clutches of genocide and transforming it into one of the best administered and most secure countries in sub-Saharan Africa would be in the company of the likes of Kim Jong-il of North Korea, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Obiang Nguema, "god" of Equatorial Guinea, Than Shwe of Burma, the al-Shabaab militia in Somalia and other Islamists in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

An analytical look at the right to free speech and information in Rwanda -- the practice not the theory -- would explain why. The President of the Rwandan Journalist Association, Safari Gaspard, insists that there is press freedom but no independent press to exercise it. It's hard to disagree with him. So, the question is: why isn't there a free press?

Rwanda is by nature a silent society. From historical times, people have been conditioned not to criticize, let alone question, authority. "The authorities are always right" and criticizing a leader or any form of opposition/dissent is seen as unpatriotic and not welcome. This explains why thousands were hoodwinked into participating in the 1994 Genocide.

Whilst Paul Kagame did not create this situation, he has failed to transcend it, allowing his proteges to continuously derail genuine progress in free speech and not realizing that a vibrant media is not in contradiction with his main goal of creating a peaceful, stable, and prosperous Rwanda. This is an enigma coming from a progressive and dynamic man like him.

It's also enigmatic that there is a lot of effort to project Rwanda as an emerging, stable democracy, though there is little progress in any of the pillars of a democracy, indicating a backwards trend or at least a stagnant situation. The little that there was of the critical press has basically collapsed, and the parliament is easily the most docile and unrecognizable in East and central Africa. No opposition party is active, supposedly because they are all in a coalition government. This has, by default, allowed Paul Kagame to become an unchallenged leader inside Rwanda; critics only speak from outside the borders and through the rumor circuit.

The burden is left to independent journalists to project any alternative view that may exist in society. The space actually does exist to do so and some uncouth journalists have used the space to write fertile imaginings bordering on the bizarre -- Totally uncalled for behavior in a precarious and reconstructing country like Rwanda, but the professional journalists who take an independent stance suffer from an acute shortage of resources with which to execute their responsibilities. Post-genocide Rwanda, by the nature of the very fact, has a uni-polar economy with almost all the resources controlled by the forces which supervised the reconstruction process; the victorious RPF[ the ruling party] has an immense stake in the economy. The effect has been that any media house that is deemed unfriendly can be successfully squeezed out financially. It also implies that qualified, competent journalists keep a safe distance from the industry and prefer other careers or head into self-imposed exile. A lot of efforts are underway to rectify the situation, like providing training for practicing journalists, and creating a guarantee fund at the Central Bank to ease the financial strain.

However, the new information minister has made a false start, trying to show muscle rather than to understand the problem. Louise Mushikiwabo made her mark deporting Robert Mukombozi, a journalist of both Rwandan and Ugandan nationality, and on World Press Freedom Day ,did the unthinkable by expelling journalists she deemed critical of the government from the day's function at the Serena hotel in Kigali. This has attracted scintillating wrath from the media fraternity and a tense relationship now exists. Mushikiwabo seems to be more in denial, insisting that critics of Rwanda's media credentials like Reporters Without Borders have a grudge.

It's hard to deny Paul Kagame's achievements and his focused vision of transforming society, but his failure to fix this very noisy sector, the fourth estate, will continue to dent his otherwise rightfully deserved acclaim.

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