Media critics protest new bill

KIGALI — International media critics are protesting provisions in Rwanda’s new penal code.

The human rights group Article 19 called the new code “fundamentally flawed and incompatible with Rwanda’s obligations under international law” in a public statement.

The group claims the language of the code violates international standards, and is so ambiguous that it could be open to abuse. They argue it’s designed to prevent criticism of the government.

According to article 704 of the new code, any person who’s convicted of a press offence “with the intent to undermine public order and territorial integrity,” will now face a sentence of five to ten years and a fine of between Rwf1 million Rwf5 million.

The Rwandan government has long been criticized for its treatment of the news media.

The country ranks 156 out of 179 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ most recent Press Freedom Index, and according to the organization, the government allows “little free expression.”

Freedom House ranks Rwanda’s press freedom as 178 out of 192, which is the fifth worst in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Henry Maina is the director of Article 19’s East Africa division, based in Nairobi. He talked to The Chronicles via Skype.

He said that after 1994, “there was a big feeling within the country that given the role the media played in the genocide, there was a need to have very strict legislation that would control and regulate the media.”

However, according to Maina, these powers have been abused “to a large extent.”

“There wasn’t an objective process of isolating what the offences were and an independent tribunal judging media houses when such accusations were made,” Maina said.

“The government was the complainant, the judge, and the prison at the same time. That non-separation of powers in itself made the regulatory process faulty, and was largely seen to be a puppet for the state to control the media.”

He said journalists lack proper legal protection.

“As it is now, without a proper legislative framework, journalists cannot seek sufficient redress when their rights are violated.”

He also said censorship was a problem.

“There is still a high level of self-censorship within the press. People want to write only those things that they think would be approved by state operatives.”

The government has also faced criticism over harassment and intimidation of the press.

Tom Rhodes is the Committee to Protect Journalist’s East Africa consultant. He also spoke to The Chronicles from Nairobi.

“The press has been targeted in the past fairly ruthlessly by the security organs,” he said. “Rwanda has one of the highest exiled journalist rates in the world.”

As a result, “there’s hardly any critical press left,” he said.

Emmanuel Mugisha, the acting executive director of the government’s Media High Commission, disagrees with the critics.

He said they’re biased, and fail to take into account context.

“In most cases, most of these reports don’t reflect the truth of the matter,” he said.

“When the media is being influenced by the wrong people who have authority, it may be dangerous, but if there’s a good government trying to advise the media, and people call it control, then it’s not fair.”

He said the media needs to be controlled because of “low levels” of professionalism.

“With professionalism, there’s still a lot that needs to be done,” Maina said.

“The media should be guided to serve its purpose in a positive way,” he said. “History has taught us that media, when it’s not guided, can be disastrous.”

Gaspard Safari, the former president of the Association of Rwandan Journalists and currently on the board of the Great Lakes Media Institute, agrees.

He said that to have complete press freedom, “You need a very professional, vibrant press. We don’t have that yet. I don’t see it.

Rhodes counters this argument.

“The claim of lack of professionalism has been the main excuse of the Kagame government since day one, and I think they’ve used this excuse to crack down on the press far too much, frankly.

This reporter interviewed a journalist with four years of experience working for several media outlets in Rwanda. He only agreed to be used as an anonymous source for fear of repercussions.

He said that “professionals are not lacking” in the media.

“Saying that we don’t have professionals in the media would be a contradiction because the government itself has established a school of journalism and communication, and there are a lot of graduates,” he said. He added that most of his colleagues have journalism degrees.

The National University of Rwanda has had a school of journalism since 1996. Kabgayi Catholic University and Mount Kenya University have also put in place faculties of journalism and communication.

The journalist also said freedom of the press doesn’t really exist in Rwanda. “Theoretically yes, but in practice, no.”

“Media freedom is not total,” he said. “Especially when we write something which criticizes the government.”

He said authorities commonly harass journalists who criticize the government, beating them up and tearing up their press passes, or bring them to court for political reasons.

As a result, journalists self-censor. “They decide to censor themselves because they are afraid they can be taken to court.”

According to this journalist, it’s hard for publications that want to be critical of the government to get advertising because businesses are afraid to put out ads in critical outlets.

“People will pull out. They’ll say, no, I can’t advertise with those people.”

He also said many journalists decide to work in other fields because of the lack of freedom in reporting.

Another journalist said that if the press lacks professional journalists, one reason is because many media outlets purposefully don’t hire them.

“They think, if we use professionals, they’ll ask for too much money,” he said.

This journalist, who is also a journalism student at the National University of Rwanda, said that journalism students often go into other fields such as public relations because being a journalist doesn’t provide them with enough money.

Despite their criticisms, the press freedom advocates remain optimistic.

Maina said new bills, drafted in consultation with Article 19, were adopted by the Senate in May. If passed, they would allow the press to regulate itself. Also proposed was Rwanda’s first access to information bill.

“We’ve largely been pleased that [the bills] meet most international standards,” Maina said. “We need to appreciate the baby steps that the country is making.”

Rhodes is also happy with the new bills. “I think we all got optimistic when these three media bills were first presented,” he said, though he wondered why they’re taking so long to pass.

Originally written on July 13, 2012.

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