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President Kagame silences critics surrounding re-election

President Kagame has ruthlessly held onto power by destroying his critics.
President Kagame has ruthlessly held onto power by destroying his critics.

via AP

Rwandan President Paul Kagame won another seven-year term in elections on 9 August, after already being in power for 15 years. He captured 93 percent of the vote by banning opposition parties and eliminating critical domestic news coverage, report Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Committee to Protect Journalists and other IFEX members. In the months leading up to election-day, the government systematically shut down news outlets and terrorised critical journalists into fleeing the country.

Index on Censorship reports that the government justified its assault on the media by saying it needed to prevent a recurrence of the 1994 genocide, and by constantly invoking the role played by the hate media in inciting the killing. As a result, independent media is struggling to survive; journalists have been killed, arrested, intimidated, driven into exile and fined.

In April two critical weeklies were suspended by the government-influenced Media High Council. Editor John-Bosco Gasasira of "Umuvugizi" left the country after experiencing threatening phone calls and surveillance from military intelligence. The next month, the editor of "Umuseso", Didas Gasana, fled Rwanda fearing arrest.

Defiant, Gasasira kept his news outlet alive in Rwanda with deputy editor Jean-Leonard Rugambage. But Rugambage was shot dead on 24 June. As well, exiled "Umuseso" journalists launched a new weekly, "Newsline", and tried to send it into Rwanda by bus, but police confiscated the paper at the Uganda border. And reporting from a distance is difficult: "Our sources are so intimidated that it proves challenging to cross-check information, especially after the assassination of Rugambage. This has really terrified both reporters and sources alike," said Gasasira.

Back inside Rwanda, editor Agnès Uwimana Nkusi and journalist Saidat Mukakibibi were arrested in July. Nkusi's Kinyarwanda-language weekly "Umurabyo" shed light on the murder of Rugambage, the fallout between President Kagame and two now-exiled military leaders, and reports alleging lavish government spending on luxury jets. Both journalists have been charged with inciting civil disobedience, insulting the President, spreading false rumours and denying the Tutsi genocide. At the time of Nkusi's arrest, RSF urged the European Union and international donors to stop funding the election.

Then, one week before elections, the Media High Council suspended 30 media outlets. The Council issued a communiqué on 26 July listing 19 radio stations and 22 newspapers that have met the criteria of the country's media law, inviting them to apply for an operating license. Other media outlets were effectively banned by being excluded from the list.

This tactic has silenced Rwanda's most prominent newspapers and several radio stations, including Voice of Africa Rwanda and Voice of America. On 28 July the Council ordered security forces to shut down newspapers and radio stations operating illegally.

In addition, Kagame severely reduced political space prior to elections, reports Human Rights Watch. The three other parties that ran were broadly supportive of Kagame's party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. Conversely, the three parties that openly criticised the ruling party were not even permitted to take part in the election. Members of opposition parties were beaten and arrested over the last eight months. And on 13 July, the vice president of the Democratic Green Party disappeared; the next day his mutilated body was found near the town of Butare.

In April, a Human Rights Watch researcher had her work visa cancelled and was forced to leave the country.

In a recent travel advisory for journalists, the International News Safety Institute (INSI) warned that telephone lines are tapped and Internet may be monitored in Rwanda. INSI adds that under the Genocide Law, anyone who challenges the official version of the 1994 genocide can be imprisoned for 10-25 years.

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