Last year when media commentators around the world, including organizations like the Human Rights Watch, appeared to be opposed to what they saw as a rapid move by authorities to get Rwanda into the Commonwealth, friends of Rwanda labeled the critics as anti-progress.
Spooling from the burst out with France over ‘false arrest warrants’ and the desire to get new and trusted friends elsewhere, Kigali fearlessly engaged on a mission that would stop at nothing to make certain Rwandans play cricket. On one side was the bitter truth: as a nation, Rwanda is still on the mend, a fledging democracy with very fragile institutions, lacking in most aspects that characterize free societies like free speech and above all operates a gagged press. On the other had was an opportunity for the English to get one past their French comrades. Despite the debate, the decision makers overruled the truth and Rwanda emerged as the 54th member of the Commonwealth. That is history.
Two months later, the very issues that commentators and HRW had tried in vain to make known to all are coming back to haunt the country that so vehemently defended her decision to join the Commonwealth. One of those issues is press freedom.
When Rwandan journalists from the private media convened in Kigali on January 19, 2010 to elect their representatives to the High Media Council - a government agency that monitors and regulates the media – very few expected a positive outcome. How does one expect objectivity from an agency two-thirds of whose council members, including the executive secretary, are appointed and approved by cabinet?
The Media Council was set up solely to use journalists to check the excesses of fellow journalists who the government saw as pursuing a different agenda from that universally acknowledged one of reporting the news. The idea seems to have been this: front the Media Council as pro-journalists and very independent but keep tabs on who is elected the council and how they operate once elected. And it has worked. Otherwise how do you explain the sudden change in voting rules on January 19? Even after making certain in invitation letters that each media house was entitled to one vote, candidates from leading pro-government organisations were allowed to ferry all their employees – including support staff - to cast votes at a purely journalists’ event!
Ignatius Kabagambe, the Director General at the Information Ministry, had told the Rwanda News Agency that “each media house will have one vote”. But he later retracted, claiming that he had “over stepped” his mandate by stating who would vote “although I thought this was appropriate”. Charming, if you consider that Kabagambe was until late last year Managing Editor of the pro-government newspaper, The New Times whose current Managing Editor Arthur Asiimwe was elected board member of the Media Council.
Be very afraid when people like Ignatius Kabagambe make decisions regarding the media. Was is not Kabagambe who vehemently orchestrated the illegal closure of The Weekly Post on the weirdest allegations that its founders were spies seeking to tarnish the image of the country? And was it not Arthur Asiimwe who kept feeding false information to Col. Dr Emmanuel Ndahiro, the Director of Intelligence that The Weekly Post’s management was not to be trusted because it had links to Uganda?
In Rwandan journalism, like I have said before, you either play by the rules, accept to be a stooge and blossom or go the professional way and end up in exile, jail or dead at worst.
Members of the private media who of course have every reason to contest the blatant cheating they witnessed on January 19 can go ahead and contest the election procedure and the result. It is the only viable option at the moment. But questions should be asked as to whether justice can come from the very people flouting the rules for their own interests and those of the establishment they operate for.
To quote Frank Habineza of the newly founded Green Party of Rwanda, “by refusing to adhere to the ministerial instruction and doing it their own way, those implicated in this scandal are indirectly bringing back and perpetuating the culture of impunity that has characterised Rwanda for so long”.
This sort of behaviour and apparent injustice can only endorse continued bickering and unless we learn to live by the rules as a nation premised on the rule of law, we will have learnt nothing from our past. And when we finally look ourselves in the face, we will wonder if we are surely ready for cricket!
Akanga, a Rwandan journalist living in exile in the UK, was publisher of The Weekly Post which was closed down by the government