Reporters without borders (RSF) released the 2010 Press Freedom Index. Commenting on the releases, Jean-François Julliard the secretary general for RSF said, “Our latest world press freedom index contains welcome surprises, highlights sombre realities and confirms certain trends,” He added that, ““More than ever before, we see that economic development, institutional reform and respect for fundamental rights do not necessarily go hand in hand.” The new addition to the bottom ten include Rwanda which is not at all surprising, given the recent troubling developments in the country’s media sector.
As was last year, it is fully expected that Rwanda through its pro-government mouthpiece The New Times will try to discredit the report. They will draw their support from grand conspiracy theories which allege that, Reporters without Borders, being a French NGO has nothing to say about Rwanda. “They [RSF] must be agents of the French government working to destabilize Rwanda”, the government daily will angrily claim.
Rwanda has gained an unlikely supporter. Well, not a supporter as such. However, journalist Jina Moore, who to her credit has extensively written on the situation in the great Lakes region, finds the RSF’s assessment of media freedom in Rwanda quite harsh. She makes three major points: (a) that the methodology used by RSF is incompetent, (b) that Rwanda is not as bad—in comparative terms, (c) that RSF is failing to distinguish between self censor and press predation and, (d) that absence of political freedom should not be translated as absence of press freedom.
I will not comment on the methodology, as I am unqualified to do so. And, indeed, much of what she writes makes sense. However, I beg to differ with the other points she raised.
The major comparisons she makes are between Rwanda, Somalia, Russia and Burundi. She would like us believe that Rwanda is faring better than these countries. She writes, “Whatever you think of Kagame, Kigali is no Mogadishu.”
I cannot argue in defense of any country that even slightly oppresses journalists. That Kigali and Mogadishu are politically different cannot be questioned. Kigali is a quickly modernizing city that is largely far removed from the sort of violence that has reigned over Mogadishu. However, this to me is a weak argument. Eritrea has no active fighting going on, yet the country still ranks the lowest on press freedom index. In fact, none of the bottom ten countries are in a period of warfare.
But there are all despotic regimes with a large appetite for exerting control.
Press independence more than anything else, is an indication of the status of freedom in any given country. It is the combination of liberty and democracy. The right of an individual to self expression as well as the right of various organizations to voice their opinions. If journalists are murdered, political activists arbitrarily imprisoned and organizations denied the right to free assembly, media freedom is inadvertently constrained. All the vices mentioned above, are commonplace in Rwanda.
For journalists in Rwanda, suffering cannot be understood in comparative terms. The late of Jean Leonard Rugambage who was executed right outside his home compound cannot compare his fate to the “131 journalists killed in Russia between 1993 and 2009”. Neither can Jean Bosco Gasasira, Didas Gasana, Robert Mukombozi , Charles Kabonero, Richard Kayigamba and Elly Akanga, all of whom live on the run in exile. Their imprisoned colleagues: Agnès Nkusi Uwimana, Saidati Mukakibibi, Patrick Kambale and Deogratius Mushayidi understand suffering in absolute terms.
It is important to gain a realization on the nature of journalist based predation in Rwanda. It is part of a wider goal to eliminate independent voices. Basically, Paul Kagame would rather run a country completely devoid of opposition. He is close to achieving his dream. The only journalists permitted are the ones operating under the “media council” which is a government controlled and financed regulatory board. The board has no room for anyone who even remotely deviates from public propaganda. This to me, does not seem any different from Eritrea where all “publications [have] to be submitted to the government for approval prior to publication”.
In the absence of basic political freedom, it is important to ask whether press freedom can even exist. What would journalists write or talk about? I do think the two are mutually inclusive and it is hard to conceive one without the other. True, in many countries, the press has been the champion for democracy. But those countries had a critical press to begin with. Speaking against media harassment in Rwanda is not, as Ms. Moore worries, “[a] proxy character in the anti-Rwanda story”. There is nothing Anti-Rwanda about it. The reality in Rwanda tells a different story.
Lastly, Reporters without Borders needs to be acknowledged for standing up for democracy at a time when the discourse on democratic ideals is quickly becoming unfashionable as everyone focuses on economic development. The wide praise accorded to Rwanda often ignores fundamental human rights abuses. It is encouraging to know that the assassination of journalist Jean Leonard Rugambage will not go in vain.