A week before the killing in Rwanda of Umuvugizi journalist Jean- Léonard Rugambage, his top editor was having coffee with a friend at Café Javas, a trendy eatery at the Oasis Mall in Kampala.
Mr. John Bosco Gasasira was stunned when he noticed that six suspicious-looking men had been monitoring him nearby, and soon he scampered for safety, abandoning the coffee. “I recognised that they were Rwandans,” Mr. Gasasira told the African Centre for Media Excellence three days after the killing of Mr. Rugambage, who had been his deputy at Umuvugizi and a close friend.
Mr. Gasasira, 32, lives in Kampala, the exiled founder of Umuvugizi, the Kinyarwanda-language tabloid that was suspended in April – for at least six months – by Rwandan authorities, accusing it of violating media laws.
Mr. Rugambage, before he was killed, had crossed into Uganda with Mr. Gasasira but returned to Rwanda to pursue the story behind the June 19 shooting of Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa, who fled to South Africa and started criticising President Paul Kagame in media interviews.
Umuvugizi is now published online, where it remains hugely popular, according to Mr. Gasasira.
“We ran a story saying Rwanda had a hand in the shooting of Gen. Nyamwasa,” Mr. Gasasira said. “For me, it’s not an accident. I knew well that they had plans for us.”
Mr. Rugambage, 38, was shot dead outside his Kigali home on the night of June 24.
While the authorities in Rwanda condemned the killing, saying they would investigate it fully, Mr. Gasasira pointed fingers at the Rwandan government and declared that his colleague had been killed in retaliation for his critical journalism.
The question of who did it, and whether there can be justice at all, is one that occupies the minds of Rwanda observers.
In the great scheme of things, however, the assassination of Mr. Rugambage threatens to reopen a fierce debate on the state of press freedom in Rwanda, where the authorities are accused of using the experience of the genocide to keep journalists on a tight leash – to impose limits, that is, on how much ground they are allowed to cover.
“The brutal murder of Jean-Léonard Rugambage deals a savage blow to Rwanda’s already beleaguered independent media,” Mr. Mohamed Keita, the Africa advocacy co-ordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said in a statement. “It comes amid a government crackdown on critical reporting ahead of the August presidential election, and raises serious questions about the safety of independent journalists in the country. The authorities must ensure that all those behind this murder, including the masterminds, are brought to justice swiftly.”
Reporters Without Borders was even more pointed: “We have for months been condemning the climate of terror in Rwanda, the escalating repression of independent journalists and totalitarian tendencies. It seems that newspaper closures, trials of journalists and blocking of websites have not been enough to elicit a reaction from the international community. Will this tragic development finally open the eyes of those who support this government?”
In May 2010, after Reporters Without Borders issued a report that depicted Rwanda as one of the most repressive states, Mr. Gaspard Safari, the president of the Rwanda Journalists Association, came forward to defend the government. “They sit calmly in their newsrooms and report hearsay as truth,” Mr. Safari reportedly said.
In the aftermath of the killing of Mr. Rugambage, Mr. Safari told the African Centre for Media Excellence that his views had not really changed. “I am not saying that things are very good, but I am also not saying that things are very bad,” he said. “We have some of the most interesting local-language newspapers.”
Mr. Ignatius Kabagambe, who edited the government-controlled New Times newspaper before becoming the director of information in the government, said it was “unfair” for media watchdogs to criticise the government before investigations into the killing of Mr. Rugambage are complete. “They have always had a tendency to get it wrong,” Mr. Kabagambe said of the media watchdogs. “They base their findings on the wrong scenarios.” The watchdogs, Mr. Kabagambe said, have always failed to consider the interests of the Rwandan government, while some journalists, instead of initiating legal efforts to challenge media laws they consider stifling, have chosen to break them. “The watchdogs should look at both sides … Journalists should endeavour to always practice journalism that is in line with the law of the land.”
Mr. Arthur Asiimwe, who chairs the board of Rwanda’s Media High Council, the official regulator, said Umuvugizi had consistently violated media laws and professional ethics before it was suspended. Some of the stories it published, he said, were malicious, unbalanced and, in some cases, even fabricated. “They were stubborn and refused to adhere,” Mr. Asiimwe said, rejecting suggestions that the government had a hand in the killing of Mr. Rugambage. “We do not think that he was killed because of his work. It has not been the habit of the government to kill journalists.”
Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo, also holding the information portfolio, told the New Times recently that it was “outrageous” to link the government to the shooting of Mr. Rugambage. “That’s Gasasira’s work,” Ms. Mushikiwabo said, accusing the exiled journalist of maligning the Rwandan government.
For his part, Mr. Gasasira said it would be suicidal to consider returning to Rwanda. “You are a good journalist when you praise Kagame,” he told the African Centre for Media Excellence. “But the moment you criticise him, regardless of your background, you are gone.”
Not long after the death of Mr. Rugambage, Rwandan police arrested the editor of a private newspaper on July 8 “in connection” with a series of articles deemed critical of the government, the CPJ said in a statement, citing the accounts of local journalists. Ms. Agnes Uwimana of the Kinyarwanda-language weekly Umurabyo, which had recently explored sensitive topics such as the Rugambage death, was taken into custody over allegations that she published “articles related to division and ethnicity”, among other charges, police spokesman Eric Kayiranga was quoted as saying.
In the case involving Ms. Uwimana, as in that of Mr. Rugambage, media watchdogs saw a similar narrative: a government playing a game of cat and mouse with the press.
“Once again, Rwandan authorities invoke national security and the legacy of the 1994 genocide to silence one of the few dissenting voices in the shrinking independent Rwandan press,” Mr. Keita of the CPJ said. “We call on authorities to release Agnes Uwimana immediately; she should not go to prison for expressing her views a month before presidential elections.”
About the Author: Rodney Muhumuza is a senior reporter with Daily Monitor in Kampala. He was recently an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow at the Kansas City Star in the United States.