3 May, 2006
We are writing to you today to express concern for human rights violations committed against independent journalists since September 1994, for the lack of substantive measures taken by your government to investigate these violations and its failure to bring the alleged perpetrators to justice.
We invite you, Mr President, to publicly voice your support today, on press freedom day, for a free and independent press in Rwanda: to ensure that independent journalists will be allowed to work free from attacks and fear of harassment and human rights abuse, to conduct impartial, independent and public investigations into all attacks or acts of intimidation against journalists and bring those responsible to justice. We finally invite you to review all cases of journalists who have reportedly been imprisoned after an unfair trial.
The media has been of considerable significance to past governments of Rwanda. Until the late 1980’s, the large majority of journalists were under the control of the ruling party, le Mouvement Révolutionnaire Nationale pour le Developpement (MRND). During the civil war of the early nineties, the Rwandan authorities and the RPF used the media, including newspapers, pamphlets and radio programmes, as a means of galvanizing Rwandans to fight in the armed conflict and inciting ethnic hatred and violence. By the beginning of 1994, government manipulation of the media became most evident.
Government-controlled radio stations and newspapers, such as Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) radio station or Kangura, were used to advocate ethnic hatred and incite Rwandans to participate in acts of genocide. In 2006, the Rwandan authorities continue to refer to the role of the press during the genocide to discredit, intimidate or harass independent journalists.
Since the RPF has been in power, freedom of expression, including freedom of the press, has been significantly restricted. Such restrictions are reflected in the 2002 Press law which introduces crimes punishable with lengthy imprisonment for publishing information that is either untrue, disrespectful of the President, a threat to law, order and public decency, or damages the reputation of the public authorities. The terms of the 2002 Press Law are vague and are regularly used to stifle reasonable press criticism of the state authorities or to intimidate those who voice concerns about the activities or performance of public officials.
Apart from the 2002 Press Law, systematic human rights violations have helped to perpetuate the restrictive climate in which Rwandan journalists work. Independent journalists who have tried to expose human rights violations and allegations of government corruption, have been arbitrarily detained, unfairly tried, forced to flee the country, have “disappeared” or have been assassinated. Government security forces have reportedly been linked to a number of these crimes. Investigations have seldom taken place and have never resulted in any prosecution of the alleged perpetrators.
The right of freedom of expression and the right to seek, receive and impart information of any kind are set out in international standards, such the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Rwanda is a state party. The Article 19 of ICCPR clearly states that:
“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”
The ICCPR allows for certain restrictions if they provided by law and are necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others or for the protection of national security, of public order, or of public health or morals.
Freedom of expression is also protected under Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Right and the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa (DPFE), adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in October 2002. This declaration notably states, in Principle XI, that:
- “Attacks such as the murder, kidnapping, intimidation of and threats to media practitioners and others exercising their right to freedom of expression, as well as the material destruction of communications facilities, undermines independent journalism, freedom of expression and the free flow of information to the public.
- States are under an obligation to take effective measures to prevent such attacks and, when they do occur, to investigate them, to punish perpetrators and to ensure that victims have access to effective remedies”.
- You are quoted as saying by the New Times, during a press conference for journalists at Urugwiro Village on 30th March 2006, that: ‘My criticism [of the media] was positive and it is always important that people accept criticism’. We therefore urge you to allow journalists to operate freely and independently even if their work seeks to evaluate the standards of governance in Rwanda. Independent reporting, detailed examination and criticism of the activities and performance of government provide a vital contribution to making civil society more open, fair and transparent.
- Journalists must at all costs not be intimidated into silence or forced into self-censorship. The Rwandan government must respect and protect their right to freedom of expression and act in line with its international human rights laid down by the Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
I thank you for taking the time to read this letter and eagerly await your response.
IFJ General Secretary