Rwanda: Heated exchanges as Canada backs UMUSESO, UMUVUGIZI
Kigali: The visiting Canadian Governor General prompted a heated debate on Thursday at the National University of Rwanda which saw Rwanda’s Foreign Affairs Minister and a Canadian professor coming up headed to head over the suspension of UMUSESO and UMUVUGIZI. For the Governor General, “Free media is a fundamental human right.”
The Governor General Michaëlle Jean used her keynote speech at the Southern Rwanda-based University to defend freedom of the press, wading into a particularly sensitive topic with deep emotional implications for different sections of Rwandan society.
“Free media is a fundamental human right,” said Ms. Jean, speaking to an audience of about 700 university students, staff and government officials. “It is one of those pivotal rights that is crucial to your realization of a host of other human rights in any society … It is incumbent on our governments to make sure they are all fully respected.”
Sitting in the audience was Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo. “I have read some of these papers and I am outraged,” said Mushikiwabo.
“…as somebody who wants to see this country move forward with very good, very healthy and very critical journalism…that a newspaper would be calling for a mutiny in the army, calling for Rwandans not to pay their taxes and predicting war in a few months…” Mushikiwabo said.
Sounding unapologetic, the Minister spoke of the need for “proper, responsible critical journalism.”
The High Media Council suspended the two controversial tabloids for six months starting last week accusing the papers of constantly insulting President Paul Kagame, fomenting dissent in the army and causing panic in the population.
But the Canadian Governor General tried to delink the current media environment to hate media during the 1994 Genocide. Any reference to ethnicity and comments that could be considered divisive can lead somebody to jail for dozens of years. Critics also allege government is using the law to squeeze the opposition.
The Governor General took a veiled swipe at that notion, warning the audience against becoming “captive” to history.
“You have to move forward. We all have ghosts in our past that send a chill down our spine,” Ms. Jean said. “There is a responsibility of the profession as well, to exorcise the fear around us and move on despite it.”
She added: “I say that, choosing my words carefully, because I know that there are those among you who could say it better than I. The principles that govern the freedom of expression are precious because they make up part of the whole group of freedoms in a healthy country.”
The Rwanda Foreign Affairs Minister Mushikiwabo scoffed at the suggestion that her government was stamping out democratic challengers in anticipation of national elections due August 09. Canadian journalists have refered to opposition politician Victoire Ingabire as being victim of the same situation, citing her latest arrest and release on bail.
“I don’t think she’s the voice of democracy. I think she’s a demagogue. I think that the fact that this is four months before an election is her timing, not the government’s timing,” said Mushikiwabo.
“This government is led by people who stopped Genocide, so they’re not using this as a way to stay in power.”
Meanwhile, the Governor General announced at the University that Canada will contribute $20,000 to the Rwanda Initiative, a joint National University of Rwanda-Carleton University project that brings Canadian journalists here to train.
Prof. Allan Thompson, a professor at Carleton, said the money will be used to buy cameras and recorders for students who have very little technology to learn the craft with.
But after several years of helping to train reporters here, Thompson offered a personal view to the audience that “Rwanda is a country that does not enjoy freedom of the press.”
“(The press) doesn’t have the trust of a lot of people, it doesn’t have the trust of the government,” he told the audience.
Media were “decimated and discredited” after the Genocide, he said. Schools, universities and professionally trained journalists in Canada are struggling to rebuild a core of reporters, editors and future publishers.
On Wednesday, President Kagame told a press conference alongside his guest that the image outsiders have of suppressed journalism “doesn’t fit the reality of Rwanda, which is living in an era of development, peace and security.”
“Why do people keep talking (about this)?” he said
“You’re talking about two (newspapers). But you have almost 20 independent privately owned radios—FM radios and other radio. You have close to 70 papers … And the two are the ones now defining us. There must be something wrong.”