A new book titled Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship paints a grim image of media freedom in Rwanda.
The book, released on January 12, is written by Anjan Sundaram, an Indian journalist, who claims to have witnessed repression of independent journalists when he worked in Rwanda. Bad News is the story of Sundaram’s time running a journalists training programme out of Kigali, between 2009 and 2013.
Using pseudonyms to conceal the sources of his information, Sundaram tries to show that journalists who question government policies routinely get into trouble in Rwanda.
He also provides a list of journalists who were allegedly assaulted, forced to flee, jailed or killed after criticising the government during that period.
Gonza Muganwa, the executive secretary of the Rwanda Journalists Association, believes that the book has “some truths”, but most of them are outdated considering that a lot has changed in the media sphere since 2009.
“The book dramatises and exaggerates many situations. It would have had some credibility had it come out around 2009, but the government has, over the years, done a lot to ensure that we have press freedom,” Mr Muganwa said.
“Many radio programmes now criticise government projects and nothing happens to them — and it has been a long time since a journalist was imprisoned because of what they said or wrote. The government considers criticism from media as part of what is needed for development,” he added.
In 2013, the government established the Rwanda Media Commission to promote self-regulation.
The body says its existence has reduced the number of journalists who are imprisoned because it has the power to arbitrate and offer verdicts in case a journalist is indicted for misreporting.
“In a week, we handle around 10 cases involving journalists who are reported for misreporting, defamation, plagiarism and the like — and each case is determined fairly. Such cases were previously handled by courts of law and caused all sorts of misunderstandings,” said Emmanuel Mugisha, the executive secretary of RMC.
“The author of that book should understand that things don’t change overnight. It is a process. Even countries that have developed do not have 100 per cent media freedom. Everything should be put in context before passing judgement.”
However, Mugisha’s predecessor, Fred Muvunyi, a seasoned Rwandan journalist, argues that whereas the government has well drafted laws to improve media freedom, they are not put into practice.
Muvunyi, who now resides in Germany, served as the chair of RMC from September 2013 to May 2015, when he resigned.
Muvunyi claims to have “run away” from Rwanda because “some individuals wanted to put me in prison on baseless charges.
“During my time, I realised how much some government cadres are obsessed with full control of everything going on in the country, and this has affected the media,” he said.
“No critical reporting is allowed, even if it has a basis. The editors and heads of media houses have several times been called by government officials to stop some of the critical programmes on radio stations or newspapers.”
Muvunyi said although he could not support the claims made by Bad News, the government has to allow more space for independent journalism to thrive in Rwanda.
However, Gerald Mbanda, head of division of media and communications at the Rwanda Governance Board (RGB), criticised Sundaram for pouring out a Westernised narrative that “intentionally forgoes context” when reporting about democracy in Africa.
RGB is the government body in charge of promoting good governance.
“The author of the book simply recycled biased narratives about media freedom in Rwanda. The people he says who were imprisoned in Rwanda were imprisoned following a legitimate court order; journalists are not above the law anywhere in the world,” he said.
“Anybody who want to assess media freedom in Rwanda should give it context, by looking at how media houses are increasing in number and how we now have laws in place that show that nobody should dictate what the media houses should be producing,” Mr Mbanda added.