Rwanda: Government Continues to Sharply Restrict Media - Watchdog

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Despite a law passed in 2002 guaranteeing media independence by formally forbidding censorship in Rwanda, in practice the media is still tightly controlled by the government, a US media watch dog has said. In an annual survey 'Freedom of the Press 2007; A Global Survey of Media Independence', Freedom House says the government's attitude toward the press in 2006 continued to be one of suspicion and control. The watchdog also says government has been using it financial muscle to control content of newspapers.

Nonetheless, Freedom House concurs that all newspapers operating in Rwanda, including the state-owned papers, face financial constraints that make it impossible for them to publish on a daily basis and most independent publications only do so twice a month.

"In addition, the government has the potential to influence print publication content through its purchase of advertising space, upon which many newspapers are financially dependent, as well as its operation of the sole domestic printing press available to non-religious media", the watchdog notes in the 362-page study. It was released Wednesday.

However, according to the Washington based body, although the government continued its "confrontational approach" to relations with the media in 2006, many independent print publications "refused" to censor themselves and published articles "critical of government behaviour".

Despite the liberalisation of the broadcast airwaves, Freedom House says the authorities maintain "tight control" over the radio and most of the independent stations "stay away from political content and focus instead on music".

It notes that although Internet access appears to be unrestricted the fact that it is only available to "less than 1 percent" of the population is an issue to be reckoned with. On the media bill currently before Parliament, Freedom House says the new press law that could provide "marginal improvements" to the 2002 law.

Case in point, the watchdog singles out articles in the 2002 law that prescribe criminal responsibility for newspaper printers and vendors as part of the chain of those that could be probed by court in case of offence by a newspaper.

The new bill however entails protecting newspaper printers and vendors from criminal libel prosecutions and removing a judge's obligation to impose the maximum sentence on journalists convicted of certain criminal offences.

Freedom House said sub-Saharan Africa has experienced notable increases in freedom over the past generation, although more setbacks than gains were seen in 2006.

"Sub-Saharan Africa in 2007 presents at the same time some of the most promising examples of new democracies in the world-places where leaders who came to power through fair elections provide real opportunities for their citizens to live in freedom-as well as some of the most disheartening examples of political stagnation, democratic backsliding, and state failure," said Thomas O. Melia, deputy executive director of Freedom House.

He added: "One of the least reported, least appreciated stories in recent years may well be the ongoing advance of freedom across the African continent, notwithstanding the setbacks that receive much more attention".

The analysis on Africa; "Freedom in Sub-Saharan Africa 2007" notes that, among the 48 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, 11 were rated Free for their performance in 2006, 22 were rated Partly Free and 15 were rated Not Free. Rwanda is rated not free. The analysis is part of the whole survey.

From a scale of 94, Cape Verde Ghana and Mauritius come out on top with Eritrea, Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, Somalia and Rwanda lagging behind at the bottom in political rights and civil liberties.

A recent drawback with regards the new Weekly Post that was given a licence that was later withdraws could further affect how media watchdog view developments in Rwanda.

RNA can also reveal that editors with the Weekly Post registered to attend the Presidential press briefing Tuesday but were told a day before that they were not welcome because they are "not registered".

During the briefing, Information Minister Prof Nkusi Laurent was asked to by President Paul Kagame to shed light on the matter. He said the licence of the paper was withdrawn after "circumspect investigations" revealed information contrary to what the paper's managers had provided.

The High Press Council has since written to the Minister asking him to "explain" to the Weekly Post manager why their licence was held.

(Rwanda News Agency/Agence Rwandaise d'Information (Kigali), 20 July 2007)