The Kigali High Court found Uwimana guilty of threatening state security by publishing material aimed at inciting public disorder and creating ethnic divisions – for that she was given a 17-year jail term. Mukakibibi, like Uwimana, was an employee of the Kinyarwanda-language newspaper Umurabyo (‘Lightening’). She was similarly charged but got seven years behind bars. Thankfully, the Supreme Court reduced their sentences to four and three years, respectively, on appeal.
As a practising journalist, I found the amount of jail time disproportionate to their actual ‘crimes’. As I wrote last year in reaction to the High Court’s verdict and sentence, men and women found guilty of participating in the 1994 genocide have been jailed for less time. So have armed robbers, hoodlums, rapists and corrupt officials who have stolen millions of francs from the national treasury.
I believed that such sentences could only be justified if, through their writing, the women (one of whom suffers from HIV) threatened the security of the entire Rwandan community. Obviously, they didn’t.
But it isn’t black and white. As a journalist, I was outraged that my colleagues in the field could be imprisoned. However, as a law-abiding citizen, I am uncomfortable with the notion of anyone being above the law – no matter who they were or what they did.
To understand the harshness of the laws – especially those pertaining to sectarianism and ethnic politics – one must look back two decades ago.
In the run-up to the genocide, in which more than a million people lost their lives, the media ratcheted up tensions. In 1990, Kangura (‘Wake up’), a particularly notorious paper, published the Hutu Ten Commandments. Among other things, they called Hutu men who marry Tutsi women “traitors”. Most chillingly, commandment eight called on the Hutu “to stop having mercy on the Tutsi”.
Then, in 1993, Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) was established. The radio station quickly became popular with young people for its music. Yet those pop songs were aired in between diatribes against the peace talks that were taking place between the government and the Rwanda Patriotic Front rebels, who form the spine of the Rwandan government today. Referring to Tutsis as “cockroaches” and “tall trees that needed to be cut down”, RTLM journalists called for a “final war to exterminate the Tutsi”.
And this terrible history is the foundation for the media laws put in place after 1994. These laws were enacted by men and women who had stared into the abyss. And they didn’t like what they had seen.
Today, we, the Rwandan media, are at a crossroads. The government for the first time has enacted laws that guarantee freedom of information and self-regulation on the media’s part. Now it is time to figure out just how much leeway we have – especially when discussing issues that bring up the ghosts of 1994. We have to figure out a balance between our freedoms as journalists and our responsibility to our audience, one that is still extremely jittery and sensitive.