With just a week to go to a presidential election on 9 August, the Rwandan authorities are openly flouting the rules of the democratic game. Press freedom violations, including the jailing of journalists, the closure of news media and the murder of a newspaper editor a month ago, have intensified in the run-up to the election.
The government’s latest repressive measure has been the suspension of some 30 news media by the Media High Council, the media regulatory body.
Media High Council executive secretary Patrice Mulama issued a communiqué on 26 July listing 19 radio stations and 22 newspapers that have been recognised by the government as “fulfilling the publication or broadcasting conditions envisaged by the law of 12 August 2009 that regulates the media.” Article 96 of this law gave the print and broadcast media three months to submit a request for an operating permit to the council, as envisaged by article 24.
By excluding them from the approved list, the communiqué has the effect of banning Rwanda’s leading newspapers, such as Umuseso, Umuvugizi and Umurabayo, and several radio stations, including Voice of Africa Rwanda (a Muslim radio station) and Voice of America. Mulama said the newspapers would not be able to resume publishing until they complied with the law. He gave the radio stations until the weekend to collect the required documents.
The Media High Council issued a follow-up communiqué on 28 July ordering the security forces to shut down all the newspapers and radio stations that were operating illegally. The same day, the police seized copies of Rwanda Newsline, an English-language newspaper published by Rwanda Independent Media Group (Rimeg), on the grounds that it is not recognised in Rwanda.
“The Media High Council’s measures, coming just a few days before the election, are highly suspect,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The aim is to clamp down on the press and prevent journalists from doing their job as independent and impartial observers of the election process.”
The press freedom organisation added: “How can a normal election be held without a free press, without voters having access to independent information and being able to follow an open debate? What we are seeing is not an open presidential election. It is a closely orchestrated exercise designed to return Paul Kagame to office.”
It is indicative of the government’s desire to bring the media to heel that Mulama said Rwanda’s journalists needed to “return to their senses” and that the law needed to restore credibility to journalism, which he described as “public rubbish dump.”
Agnès Uwimana Nkusi, the editor of the privately-owned fortnightly Umurabyo, and Saidat Mukakibibi, one of her journalists, were meanwhile placed in pre-trial detention on 20 July on charges of insulting the president, inciting civil disobedience and denying the Tutsi genocide.
In a 13 July release about Nkusi’s arrest five days before, Reporters Without Borders had urged the European Union to suspend funding for the Rwandan presidential election. See the previous release.
Rwanda was ranked 157th out of 175 countries in the 2009 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. This was the fourth lowest ranking in Africa, above only Eritrea, Somalia and Equatorial Guinea. President Kagame has for years been on the Reporters Without Borders list of Predators of Press Freedom.