A work in progress: reconciliation and press freedom in Rwanda

Personal Note: This blog post was written for Radio Netherlands Worldwide’s Blog Beat section. It was published on Wednesday 16 April as part of their Genocide Commemoration articles.  

Pre-1994 Kigali meets post-1994 Kigali. The blood soaked Saint Famille Church surrounded by the new Rwanda

Pre-1994 Kigali meets post-1994 Kigali. The blood soaked Saint Famille Church surrounded by the new Rwanda


As we remember and commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the commencement of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, various commentators and journalists have taken the opportunity to write about the progress (or lack thereof) that Rwanda has made in the years since 1994. What I’ve noticed is that while none of them can take issue with the economic, infrastructural and social development that we’ve seen, most, if not all of them, have bones to pick with aspects of Rwanda’s civil and political development.

Two examples of the slow civil and political development that they mention is press freedom/ free speech and reconciliation/political space. On the very day Rwandans remembered their dead, Steve Terril wrote an article that argued that the press was muzzled and unable to discuss the more controversial aspects of Rwanda’s history such as suspected RPF rebel human rights violations and war crimes. I will not argue with that assessment.  However, I do think that a more nuanced approach is needed to understand not only why it is media is controlled but also the government’s end game.

I think that those wanting Rwanda, and more particular Rwandan media, to ‘move on’ two decades after the Genocide are being disingenuous. It is my opinion that it’s impossible to understand the wounds and terrors that were inflicted on Rwandans, especially Tutsis. No matter just how safe and secure they feel under the present government, there are always triggers that give them flashbacks.

One can call them hypersensitive, but this fear is what drives the drafting of laws like genocide ideology law that is accused of stifling free speech. When these traumatized people think of a free and rowdy press environment, they identify it with the hate media that used insidious language to drive a genocidal narrative. Free speech doesn’t equal democratic freedoms. Rather self-censorship and control ensures the most fundamental right of all, the right to life.

I will be the last person to say that the situation is perfect. It isn’t. However, I understand that it is a constantly evolving state of affairs. Over the last few years, a freedom of information bill has come into law and the Media High Council (the government media watchdog) has lost its power to regulate the press. Its powers have been given to the Rwanda Media Commission, a body run by journalists. While these are baby steps, they count for something in the long run. The journey towards a freer, more open media environment will take a lot longer than two decades. It will need more than simple government regulation and relaxing of laws. It will need a fundamental change in mindset and this kind of change can only occur organically. The fear must subside and the sense of community rebuilt. And this takes time. A lot of it.

As Rwanda is joined by the rest of the international community in genocide commemoration the idea of who exactly is, and should be, commemorated is up for discussion. Some members of the Rwandan community aren’t happy that the commemoration is all about the Tutsis (and moderate Hutus) who died during the 100-day period in 1994. They ask, why aren’t there any remembrance ceremonies for the Hutu (and Tutsi) who died during the civil war that raged since 1990? What about the Hutu refugees who were killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo during its civil war? While I can only imagine the pain that their surviving families feel, I am loath to equate those who died in the civil wars that besieged the region to those who died during the Genocide. Those unfortunate people who were died were not killed because of an accident of birth but rather because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. While the judicial day of reckoning will come sooner or later, we mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking they are equal to those who died in the Genocide. It would be akin to equating the firebombing of Dresden during the Second World War to the Holocaust. Yes, in both cases innocents died. But pretending that it is the same in a fallacy.

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