BUTARE, Rwanda – Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean used a speech in Rwanda to defend freedom of the press, wading Thursday into a particularly sensitive debate in a country where the issue still carries deep emotional implications.
International observers have accused the government of increasingly authoritarian behaviour in recent days, with a crackdown on newspapers and the arrest this week of an opposition leader.
In advance of national elections, a pair of anti-government newspapers have had their licenses suspended. An opposition leader was also jailed before being released on bail.
The Rwandan government accuses them all of fomenting divisions in a country where memories of the 1994 genocide remain raw.
Jean addressed an auditorium with 700 university students, speaking both before and after a vigorous debate where Canadian and Rwandan panellists sparred over press-freedom issues.
Such freedoms are enshrined in international treaties like the UN Declaration of Human Rights, she told the audience.
“Free media is a fundamental human right,” said Jean, who earned warm applause during her address.
“It is one of those pivotal rights that is crucial to your realization of a host of other human rights in any society. Freedom of expression, the right to democratic elections, even the right to a fair and public hearing … Canada and Rwanda have both subscribed to these obligations through their membership in the UN, la Francophonie, and the Commonwealth.
“It is incumbent on our governments to make sure they are all fully respected.”
Sitting in the audience was Rwanda’s foreign affairs minister.
Rwanda’s government says divisive speech is unacceptable while it struggles to build a united country. Hate media played a key role in igniting the 1994 genocide, so now any reference to Hutu or Tutsi clans is strongly discouraged. Remarks deemed a threat to national stability are treated as a criminal offence.
But Jean took a veiled swipe at the notion that the genocide might still be used as a reason to limit fundamental freedoms. She warned 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,” Jean said.
“There is a responsibility of the profession as well, to exorcise the fear around us and move on despite it.”
The Rwandan government has slapped a six-month suspension on a pair of newspapers – one that published a picture of the president next to one of Adolf Hitler, and another that until several days ago was the most widely read tabloid in the country.
That larger paper, Umuseso, would write sensational stories about political sex scandals and about divisions within the army, and it allegedly used at least one editorial to warn of potential political violence. The paper relied heavily on anonymous sources which, its detractors allege, were occasionally invented.
President Paul Kagame expressed exasperation when the issue came up at a news conference this week with Canadian journalists, in the presence of Jean.
“Why do people keep talking (about this)?” Kagame 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 …. Maybe these two actually are the ones in the wrong – not the 67 (papers), not the 20 private radios.”
International observers argue that much of what’s left of the country’s media has deep ties to the government and is essentially subservient to it.
On the day the president met Jean, the country’s leading paper carried a front-page photo of him under the headline: “Kagame launches new book.” That day’s editorial was titled, “National Police Force a Success Story.”
On Thursday, a Rwandan court released on bail an opposition leader charged with genocide-related crimes, prompted by recent remarks. Victoire Ingabire is accused of promoting genocide ideology, sowing ethnic divisions, and collaborating with rebels who carried out atrocities during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.
Rwanda’s foreign minister said Ingabire – an ethnic Hutu – was arrested for associating with the murderous militia behind the massacre, and for publicly suggesting Hutus were also victims of a genocide.
Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo scoffed at the suggestion her government was stamping out democratic challengers in anticipation of national elections.
“I don’t think she’s the voice of democracy. I think she’s a demagogue,” Mushikiwabo told Canadian journalists.
“I think that the fact that this is four months before an election is her timing – not the government’s timing.”