During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, some of the media betrayed its people. Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines and the Kangura magazine both sponsored or run by hard-line Hutu party officials were at the forefront of hate media. Later, Rwanda’s media took to peace reporting in order to help the people unite and heal from the 1994 genocide effects. However, this seems to have had negative consequences for press freedom and freedom of expression as well as holding public officials accountable.
For example, according to the Rwanda Penal Code, it is a crime to defame the president or humiliate verbally, by gestures or threats, in writings or cartoons any government official. One faces a two to seven-year jail sentence or is made to pay a fine of up to 7 million Rwandan francs if found guilty.
Additionally, Rwanda’s media policy states that “Any attempt, via the media, to incite a part of Rwandan population to genocide, is liable to the death sentence.” Additionally, the High Press Council keeps an eye on the Rwandan news sources for “unacceptable content.’’
With these kinds of restrictions, the public does not get enough accountability because the media are afraid to report anything that might injure the person of the president, including information that is contrary to the official genocide narrative.
Journalist and researcher Rhiannon Snide wrote in her report titled ‘Analysis of Media in Rwanda: Internship with The New Times’, “Oftentimes getting answers from public officials was difficult, as they repeat prewritten/pre-approved responses that may or may not answer specific questions completely. This hindered the quality of articles written; preventing new, detailed information, or opinions from being exposed in the news.”
In the run up to the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2017, journalists and media houses that failed to follow the media laws were arrested or banned from operating in Rwanda. Agnes Uwimana Nkusi the editor of the fortnightly Umurabyo and Saidat Mukakibibi, one of her journalists, were detained on charges of insulting the president, inciting civil disobedience and denying the Tutsi genocide, Reporters Without Borders reported then.
As such, the public seems to be fed on mostly the official line of any story as most media houses resort to self-censorship in order to protect themselves. In fact, while compiling this story, all the Rwandan journalists we tried to reach out to did not take our calls or respond to our WhatsApp messages.
According to Robert Mukombozi, a Rwandan journalist now living in exile, this kind of reporting promotes unbalanced or one-sided reporting for government and eventually a powerless and voiceless society. Snide quoted James Munyaneza, the editor of The New Times, saying “…with these restrictions in place, journalists from the New Times feel it is necessary to self-censor due to negative forthcomings of past media no matter what the law states.”
Unfortunately, this has led to the growth of a strong military dictatorship in Rwanda, says Mukombozi, who cites lack of transparency and accountability, a poor and underdeveloped media sector as evidence of this. Mukombozi argues that this has also impeded real and meaningful reconciliation post genocide because many voices or stories have been suppressed.
Therefore, it is fair to say that what was meant for good, has turned out the opposite. In addition to impeding press freedom and freedom of expression, peace reporting prevents the media from holding public officials accountable.
Additional reporting by Hellen Nabatanzi