Divisionism in Rwanda: An Excuse for Government Censorship?


The employment of  ‘hate media’ to orchestrate the deaths of approximately 800,000 Rwandans in the 1994 genocide has been well-documented by academics and journalists  (Thompson 2007). Rwandan media institutions such as Kangura and Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) used the printed and spoken word to devastating effect to galvanize and fan ethnic hatred, announce lists of those to be hunted down and killed, coordinate roadblocks, and legitimize the extermination of the inyenzi or cockroaches. The newspaper, Kangura published the infamous ‘Ten Commandments’ that portrayed the Tutsi as a wicked race. The cover of one edition displaying an image of a machete, and asked “What weapons shall we use to conquer the inyenzi once and for all?” (Thompson 2007, 281). RTLM, backed by then President Juvénal Habyarimana’s political party, Mouvement républicain national pour la démocratie et le développement (MRND), and later the Coalition pour la Défense de la République (CDR), spouted malevolence over the airwaves, inciting Hutu to do what was euphemistically labelled as their ‘work’. Journalist Jean Hatzfeld argued that for most people, “killing is very discouraging if you must decide to do it yourself…but if you are encouraged by the authorities…you feel comforted and revitalized” (Hatzfeld 2003, 85). Hate media was therefore a great tool for the Hutu Power movement, and a wonderful scapegoat for the killers of Tutsi and Hutu moderates.

So it was in late 1994 that Paul Kagame and his political party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) had the unenviable, but vital task, of ensuring the freedom of the press whilst guaranteeing that the media should never again be allowed to disseminate ethnic hatred. This would require a fine balance of civil liberties and a paranoia of an imminent resurgence of Hutu Power. However, according to the most recent Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Border in 2010, Rwanda is now in the bottom 10 countries in the world. Since the inception of the index in 2002, Rwanda has dropped a staggering 62 places to 169th place (Reporters Without Borders 2002-2010). Even countries like Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) place higher. Reporters Without Borders went as far as to label President Kagame as a “press predator” (Reporters Without Borders 2010). The organization criticized Kagame’s closing of newspapers in the build-up to the 2010 presidential election and his denigration of journalists as “mercenaries” and “bums” (All Africa 2010). Meanwhile, renowned international human rights lawyer Lars Waldorf actually suggested “there is less press freedom and media pluralism in Rwanda today than there was before the genocide” (Waldorf 2007, 404). It seems therefore the scales have tipped in favour of paranoia.

This paper shall therefore examine if the post-genocide media in Rwanda are indeed being censored, and intimidated into toeing the RPF line. If so, can Kagame’s tactics be justified in the DRC, where many former members of the Interahamwe and the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR) are currently hiding among civilian refugees? Or is Kagame merely manipulating Rwanda’s 2002 Press Law, which was allegedly designed to stamp out ethnic divisionism and ‘genocide ideology’, to retain his position? How can journalists hope to practice their profession in such a repressive environment? This paper will hope to address these questions as well as examining the following: a chronology of violations to date; a brief examination of the 2002 Press Law and the role of the Media High Council; arguments in defense of the alleged censorship in Rwanda.

A Chronology Of Violations: 1994-2002

In his memoirs, André Sibomana, a priest, journalist and human rights activist who died in 1998, acknowledged that even in the 1980s there had been no real freedom of the press (Sibomana 1999, 20). He recounted how even then, the Habyarimana regime monopolized the national radio and television stations. Did things change after the genocide? Sibomana admitted that initially in 1994 “the [RPF] government allowed the press to resume its activities freely; then it continually restricted its freedom” (Sibomana 1999, 143). He argued that what seemingly began as a genuine desire to make the media more accountable transformed into a conscious policy of censorship. This often manifested in the form of intimidation, arrests, disappearances, and attacks, which increased in frequency and severity from late 1994 to early 1995. One journalist, Edouard Mutsinzi, was badly beaten by a group of Tutsi extremists; another, Manasse Mugabo, simply disappeared. Sibomana stated “Rwandans realize perfectly well that there is a significant difference between what they see with their own eyes…and what they hear through the official media…which support the government line” (Sibomana 1999, 144). After Sibomana left his position as editor at Kinyamateka in 1997, his successor was instructed to skirt controversy and to curtail its anti-establishment voice (Sibomana 1999, 162).

Carina Tertsakian confirmed this worrying trend of intimidation in the 1990s (Sibomana 1999, 168). She recounted how other journalists were targeted: in 1997 newspaper director Amiel Nkuliza was imprisoned; in the same year his colleague Appollos Hakizimana was fatally shot in a suburb of Kigali (Sibomana 1999, 168). Waldorf illustrated how this carried into the new century: in 1998 television producer Emmanuel Munyemanzi was killed; in 1998 Jean-Pierre Mugabe was forced into exile; in 2001 the same Amiel Nkuliza was detained after a publishing a controversial article; Ugandan-born editor Assuman Bisiika was expelled from the country and in 2002 editors Laurien Ntezimana and Didace Muremangingo were arrested on weak charges for inciting divisionism (Waldorf 2007, 408-409).

The 2002 ‘Divisionist Law’, 2002 Press Law And The Media High Council

2002 was the year in which several pieces of legislation were passed that effectively gave the Rwandan government carte blanche in persecuting citizens and journalists alike. A criminal law (Law 47/2001, article 8) was passed that was meant to eradicate ethnic divisionism and genocide ideology. The law stipulates that “any person who makes public any speech, writing, pictures or images or any symbols over radio airwaves, television, in a meeting or public place, with the aim of discriminating [against] people or sowing sectarianism” (Waldorf 2007, 407). Anyone found guilty of such an offence can be given a prison term of one to five years, and a fine of up to two million Rwanda francs or approximately C$3,500 (HRW 2003, 12). However, this rather broad and vague clause could be open to interpretation or manipulation. This paper will illustrate this with many examples in the next section.

In addition, the 2002 Press Law imposed specific restrictions on journalists. These included, but were not limited to: defaming the president or public authorities; publishing inaccurate articles; threatening public law and order; and legitimizing genocide or adversely affecting the morale of the armed forces (Waldorf 2007, 407). Even more alarming was the stipulation that journalists and researchers had to reveal their sources to the government on demand. In such a climate, who would ever want to go on the record criticizing Kagame or the RPF? Lastly the 2002 Press Law created the Media High Council. This is a constitutional body that is supposed to be independent. The Council’s members and chief executive are, however, appointed by the government and is monitored by the Ministry of Information. The next section will illustrate how the Media High Council appears to be a proxy of the government.

A Chronology Of Violations: 2003-2010

One of the most targeted publications was Umuseso. Some of the charges levelled at the publication were extreme. In 2002, the Press Minister compared its work to that of the hardline paper from the genocide, Kangura. A parliamentary commission charged Umuseso with promoting genocidal ideology despite the fact that the majority of the publication’s staff was Tutsi. In 2003, the editor Ismail Mbonigabo, was incarcerated for a month just for intimating that former prime minister, Faustin Twagiramungu, would be running against Kagame in the 2003 presidential election.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a scathing indictment of Kagame’s tactics preceding the 2003 election. They alleged that not only were the media being targeted by the RPF, but the government was also “labelling possible political opponents ‘divisionist’ and taking steps to silence them in order to ensure victory in upcoming election” (HRW 2003, 1). The main opposition party, the Democratic Republican Movement (MDR), had the following accusations directed at them: ‘minimizing’ the genocide; claiming that the RPF had been involved in a ‘double genocide’; opposing compensation payments to genocide survivors and opposing the ceremonial reburial of genocide victims. Although charges against the party were not proven, these tactics cannot be underestimated. Not only did Kagame play upon national and international fears of renascent divisionism, but it also resulted in many MDR supporters leaving the party to join the ranks of the RPF ranks. The 2003 HRW report stated that this was “to avoid being labelled ‘divisionist’ or even ‘genocidal’”. The document concluded that “others are likely to do the same before the elections” (HRW 2003, 15).

The Umeseso newspaper was investigated a second time in August 2004. After its editors published an article accusing the vice-president of Parliament’s lower house of corruption and planning to run against Kagame, the newspaper was taken to court for defamation and divisionism. The Media High Council ordered the editor, Charles Kabonero, to reveal the article’s sources. Kabonero refused to do so, and was eventually charged with defamation (Waldorf 2007, 410-411). The Media High Council was also involved in a 2006 case involving another newspaper, Umuco. It attacked the newspaper for publishing several articles were critical of the government. As a result, one Umuco journalist fled the country, whilst another was sentenced to one year in prison.

Kagame again aroused fears and outrage before the 2010 presidential elections. Reporters Without Borders highlighted a number of disturbing pre-election events: in June, Jean-Léonard Rugambage, the deputy editor of the newspaper Umuvugizi, was shot in Kigali; in July editor Agnes Uwimana Nkusi was arrested after she wrote articles questioning who was responsible not only for Rugambage’s death, but also the attempted murder of a former RPF general in South Africa; and in late July, 3 weeks before the election, the Media High Council suspended 30 news organizations (Reporters Without Borders, 25th June and 13th July 2010). HRW mentioned another interesting event that happened on July 28th 2010. Copies of the first edition of The Newsline, an English-language newspaper produced by Umuseso journalists living in exile, were seized at the Uganda-Rwanda border.  The conductor of the bus was detained for two days before being arrested (HRW, 2nd August 2010). Was the content of this newspaper that incendiary, or was Kagame simply determined to silence any critiques of his leadership? Interestingly enough, President Kagame felt the need to hire a British PR company a week before the election (Guardian 3rd August 2010).

Reporters Without Borders also reported on 11th June 2010 that the news website of Umuvuguzi had been blocked in Rwanda by order of the Media High Council. The website had been launched just one week after the print version of the publication had been suspended by the Council for six months. The “censorship of these newspapers, whether they appear online or in print form, constitutes a crude act of manipulation in the run-up to the presidential election” (Reporters Without Borders 11th June 2010). Reporters Without Borders emphasized that the government’s “aim is to clamp down on the press and prevent journalists from doing their job as independent and impartial observers of the election process…what we are seeing is not an open presidential election…[but] a closely orchestrated exercise to return Paul Kagame to office” (Reporters Without Borders, 2nd August 2010). Kagame ended up winning the election with an impressive 93% of the vote (Waldorf and Strauss, 2010).

However, it is not only the Rwandan media that have to comply with these stringent media laws. In April 2009 the Kinyarwanda radio service of the BBC was suspended. The Rwandan Minister of Information, Louise Mushikiwabo, stated that the service amounted to a “blatant denial of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi of Rwanda” and called it “unacceptable speech” (HRW, April 27th 2009). Similar criticisms have been levelled at the Voice of America radio service in Rwanda (Thompson 2007, 412).

Even non-journalists have fallen foul of Rwanda’s divisionist laws. HRW researcher Carina Tertsakian was denied a work visa to Rwanda in April 2010. Tertsakian had to eventually leave the country after ‘anomalies’ were discovered in her application (HRW, 23rd April 2010). In May 2010 Peter Erlinder, the American defense lawyer of the former opposition leader Victoria Ingabire, was arrested on charges of denying and minimizing the genocide, and spreading rumours that would allegedly threaten national security. Erlinder was eventually released on June 17th on medical grounds (HRW, 2nd August 2010). There was also the case of Dalhousie doctoral student, Susan Thomson, who had her passport confiscated in 2006 whilst performing interviews with genocidaires for her field research. She was told that her “research looked too favourably upon the experiences of prisoners.” Thomson was told by government representatives that she needed ‘re-education’. She was forced to attend ingando (citizenship re-education) and gacaca sessions so that she could observe “the good work of the government in restoring peace and security” (Thomson 2009, 118-119). Thomson ended up secretly applying for a new passport at the Canadian Embassy in Kigali and leaving the country without the permission of the Rwandan government.

In Defence Of Censorship?

Naturally the Rwandan government disputed the 2010 Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, claiming it was not only unfounded but also misleading. The government’s rebuttal was ironically posted as a standalone piece of the website of the Rwandan News Agency. Protais Musoni, the Ministry of Information, raised three main points of contention. First, he objected to the statement that Kagame had been elected in “a climate of terror.” Musoni quoted the report submitted by the Commonwealth Observer Group that stated, “the 9 August Presidential Elections in Rwanda were conducted in a peaceful atmosphere. Campaign freedoms were provided for candidates, and they enjoyed freedom of movement and assembly in the conduct of their campaigns” (Rwanda News Agency 2010). Interestingly Musoni quotes selectively from the Commonwealth’s report. He does not mention how the report also stated that “the media environment is characterized…by a culture of self-censorship, with high levels of reluctance by journalists to write reports criticizing the government, its policies or their implementation, particularly policies directly associated with the president” (Commonwealth Observer Group 2010, 24). Nor does Musoni mention the concluding statement of the report, noting that “as Rwanda strives to deepen its democratic process, it needs to address issues of political participation and greater media freedoms so that the key benchmarks for democratic elections, to which Rwanda has committed itself, can be fully met” (Commonwealth Observer Group 2010, 24).

Second, Musoni contests that the suspension of certain newspapers has been taken out of context. He argues that Reporters Without Borders do not take into the account that  “Rwanda is a jungle where industry operators conduct business in anarchy!” (Rwanda News Agency 2010). He justified the suspension of Umuseso and Umuvugizi, stating that they had repeatedly failed to adhere to the 2002 Press Law and had promoted divisionist ideology, thus hampering the nation’s attempts at reconciliation and economic development.

Third, Musoni resented the insinuations that the fatal shooting of journalist Rugambage’s was politically motivated. There were rumours that Rugambage was shot after he published an article intimating that the Rwandan government was involved in the attempted murder of General Nyamwasa in South Africa (BBC 2010). Musoni simply called this “another hoax floated by the agenda-driven media watchdog [Reporters Without Borders]” (Rwanda News Agency 2010). Musoni stressed that two suspects had already confessed to the crime. Musoni wondered “how can it [Reporters Without Borders] claim to protect journalists while using very un-journalistic virtues of hearsay, lack of verification, imbalance and indifference?” (Rwanda News Agency 2010).

The Rwandan government’s reaction was predictable. However, freelance journalist, Jina Moore, also questioned the validity of the Press Freedom Index. She not only implied that Reporters Without Border’s methodology for gathering data was suspect, but ridicules how they likened the scale of the journalist exodus from Rwanda to that in Somalia. She wrote that “I’m no naïf, but this is laughable. Journalists fleeing Somalia are fleeing very real, dangerous and ongoing violence” (Moore 2010). She also recounts how journalists in Burundi and Russia are much worse off than those in Rwanda. Her commentary makes the plight of journalists sound like some morbid competition. Whilst her point that people should not blow the issue of persecution out of proportion is valid, she manages to simultaneously downplay the struggle of journalists in Rwanda. Just because the status quo in Rwanda may not be as dire as other nations, does that make the current situation in Rwanda acceptable? Such an attitude will never prompt change.

U.K. journalist Graham Holliday agreed with Moore. Referring to the organization as ‘Reporters Without Context’, he states that he has spoken to many western diplomats who have alleged that many of the newspapers the organization mentions, “have a history of fabricating quotes and publishing unsubstantiated rumour” (Kigali Wire 2010). Holliday argued that this would adversely affect the credibility of Reporters Without Borders when they do in fact raise legitimate concerns. He does admit that the situation in Rwanda is not ideal. By suspending two newspapers, he stated that the Media High Council achieved nothing. Holliday stated that instead of punishing ‘bad’ journalism, the Council should be working more closely with journalists, helping them to hone their craft and ethics. As it stands, Holliday argued that “when the ban’s lifted…they [will] just come back and continue as before, business as usual” (Kigali Wire 2010). However, Holliday assumes that the RPF would even be willing to work with the media. As it stands Kagame has a great deal to gain by forcing ‘subversive’ journalists out of the country. This serves to ‘kneecap’ the voice of the opposition, thus ensuring that potential political opponents will be reluctant to run against him in the future.


The legacy of RTLM and Kangura cast a long shadow over the current debate on freedom of the press in Rwanda. With its recent history in the back of its mind, the government has the unenviable task of determining how to guarantee freedom of the press while protecting the population from incitement to violence without resorting to draconian sanctions on the media.  However, whilst the violations of press freedom may not be as extreme as Burundi or Somalia, this paper has illustrated that they are still rife in Rwanda, particularly around the 2003 and 2010 presidential elections. Intimidation and restrictions are often utilized by the RPF and the Media High Council to ensure ‘good practice’ and limit divisionism. In addition pro-government newspapers are unfairly awarded advertising revenues (Waldorf 2010, 413) and have access to Kigali’s only printing press (Musabende 2010).

Waldorf and Strauss argue that international donors “need to seriously rethink their ‘development first, democracy later’ strategy” (Waldorf and Strauss 2010). They argue that there is less political pluralism and media freedom than there was around the 2003 elections. Waldorf and Strauss further state that “donors also need to stop doing penance for the 1994 genocide by unconditionally backing Kagame…Rwanda also needs independent voices in the media and civil society, but this requires donors and diplomats willing to protect them” (Waldorf and Strauss 2010).  Rwandan journalist Alice Musabende corroborated this view in an interview: “if you’re justifying economic development by cutting freedoms, then there’s really no development at all” (Musabende 2010).

In the meantime, it seems that journalists have to toe the government line and self-censor, or face fines or imprisonment. However, in November 2010, there was a report stating that the Ministry of Information was considering decriminalizing defamation, as well as looking into allowing journalists to submit access to information requests (All Africa, 7th November 2010). At this point, given the recent elections, it is not clear how much credence can be given to such claims. Is the government just paying lip service to the demands of human rights groups, or are they seriously seeking change? Whatever the case may be, the Guardian newspaper contended, “for Kagame, stability and economic progress trump democracy, and newspapers that rock the boat are seen as a distraction” (Guardian, 9th August 2010). So long as this perspective informs Kagame’s approach to such rights as the freedom of the press, it is highly unlikely journalists will see any genuine policy changes in the near future. To this end Kagame continues to claim that there is no real censorship of the media in Rwanda today – anyone can write whatever they choose so long as it is not divisionist and does not promote genocide ideology. However, Sibomana argued that “government censorship is [actually] no longer needed when journalists censor themselves just in order to stay alive” (Sibomana 1999, 168).