About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Rwanda and its critics

Inside one nation’s struggle against deeply entrenched prejudice

Over the last five months, 19 journalists formerly working with News of the World newspaper have been arrested in the United Kingdom for hacking into people’s voice mails for news information. Six top company executives have been forced to resign and two of them have been arrested.

The newspaper has been closed by its owner, Rupert Murdock, and his son has been forced out as chairman of the parent company, News International, for presiding over this mess. Note that this newspaper had been in existence for more than 150 years.

In spite of all these investigations, arrests and resignations, I have not read anyone who has condemned the government of UK. On the contrary, public opinion is behind it in cracking down on this criminality. Human rights groups see it as normal and justified. Associations for the defense and promotion of media freedom approve.

But if these actions based on the same facts had been taken by the Rwanda government, hell would have broken lose.  Media and human rights activists and journalists would have outdone themselves condemning the government for its hostility to press freedom and suppressing free speech. Officials from the Rwanda government would try to explain their case to a biased, prejudiced and hostile international and regional press. But their arguments and facts showing that this was in response to criminal activity by the journalists would fall on deaf ears. Just for the sake of balance, Rwanda government explanation would be presented as mere footnotes in the frenzy of this broad-based condemnation.

I have learned from experience that all too often, some journalists in Rwanda indulge in blatant acts of criminality involving but not limited to blackmail, extortion and even treason. Some (I suspect unwittingly) collude with people who are plotting violent rebellion without careful consideration of the dangers of such actions. Security agencies track their emails and telephone calls. Again, the Rwandan government is asked not to take action because that would be a violation of press freedom. Would a British, American or French journalist share information with Al Qaeda, exchange emails and actively promote its cause and remain free?

It is one of the most frustrating things about the debate on Rwanda that it is often bereft of a factual content. Having been branded despotic and hostile to freedom, analysts take this categorisation for granted. Rwanda government is guilty once accused and no amount of evidence it puts forth can exonerate it. Therefore, whenever a Rwandan journalist or opposition politician gets killed, whether true or false, the accusation against the government is accepted on its face value.

This bias is the reason why the same events in Rwanda and the UK generate diametrically opposed responses – one sober and understanding, the other irrational and condemnatory. The issue is not what UK or Rwanda government will have done. The yardstick of judgment will be the existing bias about either country. The UK government is given the benefit of doubt; so negative accusations would need to have high levels of proof to be accepted. Rwanda is condemned regardless of the facts because international human rights groups and local, regional and international media have successfully branded it hostile to freedom.

For example, in The Independent of February 24th to March 1st, AFP journalist Steven Terrill wrote an article urging President Paul Kagame to come out and deny allegations of murdering Rwandans whenever it happens. He also urged Kagame to condemn violence against regime critics. To the uninformed, Terrill is making a fair point. But to those who follow Rwanda well, he is either being hypocritical or exhibiting inexplicable ignorance.

Terrill has lived in Rwanda for three years. During this time, two or three real and alleged Rwandan dissidents have been killed. In almost all the cases, the government of Rwanda has woken up to find itself engulfed in an avalanche of accusations from human rights groups and journalists – claiming it was behind the death. The government finds itself in a position to reactively defend itself rather than proactively show its compassion to the victims. In all cases, it has openly condemned violence meted out against any of its citizens – exactly what Terrill claims it is not doing. Yet the bigger problem is that such actions find limited space in media.

For instance, when a dissident general, Kayumba Nyamwasa, was shot at in South Africa, the government of Rwanda issued a statement condemning his shooting and even sent a message to his family. This was a small footnote in the story. When one Charles Ingabire was killed in Uganda, last year, Kagame said at a press conference in Kampala a few days later that the government of Rwanda cares about each one of its citizens regardless of where they are or their political views. This aspect of Kagame’s presentation did not get into any newspaper.

Therefore, Kagame personally and his government generally have already done exactly what Terrill is asking for – even though not with the finesse of a highly skilled PR machinery as in America. However, journalists do not give as much prominence to what the government says as they do what its critics are saying. It would need a PR machinery of extraordinary skill for Rwanda to get above the deeply entrenched stereotypes against it. Therefore, whenever there is a scuffle between Rwanda government and a journalist, regardless of the facts of the case, the narrative in most media will pit Devil Kagame against Angel journalism.

This has undermined the establishment of a conducive atmosphere in which an open discussion of the state of the media in Rwanda can take place. It has also forced the government into a siege mentality – giving up any hope that it can constructively engage human rights organisations and the media in meaningful dialogue on press freedom. Inadvertently (or perhaps even advertently) the very organisations that claim to promote freedom and human rights in Rwanda have actually undermined the foundation on which such a more meaningful conversation can be constructed.

For those interested in an informed discussion of democratisation in Rwanda, it would be important to overcome prejudices first. That means the facts of every case involving a death or an arrest must be the basis of the debate and evidence should replace stereotypes and prejudices. This is not to say the government is always right. Rwanda government officials make many mistakes. Rather, it is to say that the state often has legitimate issues that should be listened to and its side of the story given equitable space in newspapers and airtime on television and radio.

For example, in 2011, the British police happily publicized allegations that it had “reliable information” that Kigali had sent a hit squad to kill two Rwandan dissidents in London. Many people think the UK police acts professionally even though its own government report in 2,000 said racism is institutionalised in the force. Instead of asking the UK to substantiate the claims, human rights groups and most media went on a condemnation spree against the Rwanda government.

People in Rwanda see this overt prejudice by media and human rights groups. This has generated a self-destructive impulse – Rwanda’s leaders make little effort to influence international public opinion because their experience is that regardless of what they say, their voice will not be heard. This fatalism – the belief that what it does or says will not matter – has allowed its enemies to sell every outlandish accusation to an increasingly biased international press and human rights community. Now, even governments of western nations are falling into the trap.

The basic principle governing every accusation is that he who alleges must prove their allegation. The British police have made grave allegations against the government of Rwanda. Yet journalists do not take them to task to explain why they believe the allegations against the government of a friendly country. Instead the questions are directed at Rwanda to prove its innocence against outlandish allegations.

To flip this coin: there have been accusations against the US government under George Bush that it hijacked the planes on September 11, 2001 and rammed them into the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC. Like all such outlandish claims, mainstream media in America and the rest of the western world have never given it space or airtime in print and broadcast media. And even when they have brought it forth, it has only been to show the existence of some lunatic fringe opinion within their society – but never as an accusation to even debate.

But when a similar outlandish accusation is made against the Rwanda government, journalists employ a double standard. An American reporter who cannot ask his president to keep explaining himself to the world that he is not the one who ordered the 9/11 attacks insists that the president of Rwanda should keep defending himself against similar outlandish claims. The same journalist who presents these outlandish allegations as legitimate issues for debate in Rwanda knows that when a one Rosie O’Donnell made the allegation of the American government being responsible for 9/11 on ABC TV’s The View program, she was fired that very day.

It is this double standard that allows a Rwandan dissident to walk into the UK police office, motivated by a desire to embarrass the government for purely propaganda reasons, and sell them an outlandish allegation.
If the Rwanda government did not send a hit squad to kill dissidents in the UK, how do they prove that beyond stating the fact?

The more troubling part of these accusations happened in Sweden late last year. The Swedish government, acting on a tip to its police from “a reliable source” decided to quietly expel a Rwandan diplomat. Immediately after, the “reliable source” revealed his identity. He is Gasasira, a journalist who escaped from Rwanda accusing the government of political persecution. He wrote on his blog boasting how he duped the Swedish police and caused its government to expel a Rwandan diplomat.

Just before his escape from Rwanda, Gasasira had complained to Kagame at a press conference that his life was in danger. Kagame invited him to a private meeting to listen to his concerns. After the meeting Kagame ordered the chiefs of intelligence, the army and police to offer protection to this critical journalist. He continued with his critical journalism. However, one evening an unknown gang overpowered Gasasira’s bodyguard and injured him. The government of Rwanda again took care of him evacuating him to South Africa for medical treatment. What better illustrates the commitment of the government of Rwanda to offer protection to every citizen, supportive or even critical than this story? And why does Terril, who lives in Rwanda and should know this story not spread it?

It is one of those pranks of history that Gasasira, who had been reported missing and killed by the government of Rwanda is the same person who showed up in Sweden to make these claims. Had he not revealed himself, the claim that government of Rwanda caused him to disappear would still be as popular among human rights groups and their journalistic allies as the claims of hit squads.

The journalists who reported the expulsion of a Rwandan diplomat from Sweden did nothing to ask Stockholm to explain its reasons for expelling the diplomat and evidence to support its allegations. The Swedish government knows that it would have been required to adhere to particular standards if it sought to expel a British or French diplomat.

Since the story broke, the Swedish government has made no effort whatsoever to substantiate its allegations by providing telephone calls, email exchanges, evidence of undiplomatic activity by the diplomat. The Swedish government gets away with such blatant misconduct simply because the victim is a poor African country. The same applies to mass media and human rights groups. Even when the person who duped the Swedish police has revealed the details of the plot, none of these have taken up this issue.

Anyone conversant with the immigration system of the UK knows that it would take the police minutes to find names of members of the alleged hit squad and apprehend them. They have not. Instead, the British claim they blocked the suspect from entering the country from Belgium. Why would the British government block a suspected criminal from entering the country instead of arresting him? Is this too much to ask?

The Rwanda government asked the UK government to name members of the hit squad. It did not. If there is credible information regarding attempted murder, the UK police would establish some prima facie evidence first before running to publicise mere allegations. The same applies to Sweden which has failed to furnish the government of Rwanda with any explanation whatsoever on why it expelled the diplomat. Would the two governments behave that way if the country involved were Belgium?

There is therefore a clear case of double standards. I ask Terrill to do no favors to the government of Rwanda but to only use the same standard of proof and verification, fairness and balance, of context and completeness when reporting on Rwanda as he would if he were reporting on America or Sweden. But why doesn’t he and others do this? I will explain this next week.

No comments: