Is Rwanda really that bad for journalists? Actually, I don’t think so

The press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders is bound to cause a stir among Rwanda-watchers. The Paris-based group called Rwanda among the 10 worst violators of press freedom in the world, right along with North Korea, Burma and Iran. It’s also the third-worst in Africa; only Eritrea, where there basically aren’t any journalists who aren’t in jail, and Sudan are worse. Even Somalia ranks better than Rwanda.

I’m not sold. Here’s why.

Let’s get the genre objections out of the way first. I’m not a big believer in indices. They usually feel more like media gimmicks than analytical tools to me. But everybody loves lists – and sometimes, people like to be on them. Show me a list with an air-tight methodology, and I’ll call you a liar. (The RSF methodology seems to me pretty wanting, but if you’re the same kind of nerd as I am, you’ll check out their questionnaire, scoring sheet, and sparse methodological explanation and decide for yourself if you’re satisfied.)

But let’s talk specifics.

RSF alleges that in Rwanda, “Journalists are fleeing the country because of the repression, in an exodus almost on the scale of Somalia’s.” I’m no naïf, but this is laughable. Journalists fleeing Somalia are fleeing very real, dangerous and ongoing violence. Also, by the by, what’s going on in the media space for journalists who stay in Somalia? “The two leading Islamist militias, Al-Shabaab and Hizb-Al-Islam, are gradually seizing control of independent radio stations and using them to broadcast their religious and political propaganda.” That is to say, a ongoing and overt seizure by a fundamentalist religious government of all media space in order to push propaganda. Remember when they also banned music on the radio in Mogadishu? Yeah, me too.

Whatever you think of Kagame, Kigali is no Mogadishu. Even exiled journalists who don’t like the current government concede that 40 percent of the media here is privately owned. What RSF’s press materials don’t talk about – and what its methodology does not convince me it has any idea how to measure (even though it claims to account for this) – is self-censorship.  But because the variable is far from robust (which is really too bad), I’m going to ignore it.

RSF points out that the deputy editor of an independent paper was killed here before the elections. That’s true, and awful. But in Russia, it’s a public health hazard to be a journalist: The country has a long-proven pattern of killing of journalists who dare to investigate things its elite don’t want anyone to know – 313 of them between 1993 and 2009, according to the International Federation of Journalists. (For more on the anti-perks of being a journalist in Russia, check out this piece.)

Meanwhile, Rwanda’s neighbor to the south, Burundi, looks a lot nastier for journalists (though not exclusively for journalists). Jean Claude Kavumbagu was tossed in jail for treason in July after he dared to report that Bujumbura wasn’t to defend itself against an attack by Somalia’s music-hating, journalist-repelling Al Shabaab. He’s still there; his pre-trial detention has been extended indefinitely, and no date for a trial set. Chances are the authorities in Burundi, a country known for torture, are not being that nice to him, either.

It’s not just Kavumbagu they don’t like either. Two journalists at the popular independent radio station Radio Africa Publique receive death threats and others are held by the government’s shady intelligence services.

Burundi’s 108 on the Index – 61 places higher than Rwanda. (Is it me, or is this starting to feel like the days when Libya chaired the UN Human Rights Council?)

Yes, Rwanda banned two “opposition” (a word that has come here to mean not-run-by-Kagame’s-dudes) newspapers before this year’s presidential election. Yes, during a presidential election there was more media scrutiny and more pressure. Also, the pope is still Catholic.

I’m not saying it’s easy to be a journalist in Rwanda. I’m saying I don’t trust the RSF index, for all the reasons above – and for one more. It’s easy, and tempting, to make the media a main proxy character in the anti-Rwanda story that caught so much international attention this summer, leading up to the election. It’s hard to be a journalist here, sure.  But it doesn’t do anyone any favors – and least of all the journalists living and working here – to blow the situation out of proportion.  So let’s not confuse press freedom for political freedom, and let’s not try to lance the latter by invoking the former. After all, journalists have to work hard enough around the world not to be political tools as it is.


  • Eamon says:

    Thanks for highlighting how arbitrary this is. At best, it seems like these questionnaires would be good for putting countries in broad categories of press freedom. Human Development Index it is not (and even that has problems). I appreciate the idea of having some way of gauging press freedom, though — it would be a useful indicator to compare against other things in the right context. Is there a report you trust more?

    • Jina Moore says:

      You mean compare press freedom across countries, or compare press freedom in a country to other freedoms in a country? Freedom House does an index, though I remember reading a rather persuasive critique about Freedom House at SIPA (not sure if they took that out of ConFound by the time y’all got there? Or if it was in fact ConFound contraband someone slipped into my discussion group…). I think the idea of measuring freedom in an index in general is pretty weird and subjective, and if you’re not sharing the kinds of data sources you used — not the names of the people who fill the questionnaire, necessarily, but their professional affiliations (generally, ie, NGO, journalist, embassy worker, missionary, analyst, dog-walker, whatnot) — then the result is, at least for my purposes, inconclusive.

      The danger of a nice clean number is that it so easily masks its source. Or one of many dangers, I guess.

  • Jean-Baptiste Ndahumba says:

    I appreciate your balanced comment on press freedom in Rwanda. I was in Belgium during the genocide and in the morning we attended the briefing for NGOs on the situation in Rwanda. The source was MISNA, especially Father Theunis representing RSF in Rwanda. For the record, Father Theunis was briefly imprisoned in Rwanda on charges of genocide and to my knowledge, RSF has never provided a convincing explanation of that time. This may explain that …


  • Intare Batinya says:

    Thank you so much for exposing so explicitly the underhand dealings in PSF. I am sure there is some puppeteer in the background who is pulling strings when the light falls on Rwanda. If PSF was a credible organisation they would carry out their surveys and put things in context. But thats what happenes if anything is allowed to operate without logical borders

  • Jean-Baptiste Ndahumba says:

    I am not a journalist but I’ve been wondering about freedom of speech and its abuse (both ways). The opportunity is offered today by the publication of “War Logs” by “” to discuss it.
    In Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Germany, and even in the U.S., rogue politicians are on top. They express themselves, win elections and hold governments to ransom. It’s just like that and it’s their right. But we Africans, are we going to kill each other as it has unfortunately happened to respect the First Amendment?

    Quote of General McChrystal:

    Update 5:19pm cst: McChrystal’s full response on Wikileaks:
    “I think it’s sad.
    I think first the decision by anybody to leak classified information is something that not only is it illegal, it’s also something that that individual is making judgements about the value of that information and the threat to comrades, that almost nobody is qualified to make that judgement. So if somebody leaks information that puts me or one of my soldiers at risk, I think that’s a level of irresponsibility thats very upsetting.
    Then there’s the decision to release them widely. I’m also not comfortable with that either. I think that a level of responsibility towards our people needs to be balanced with any argument for a need or right to know.
    I can’t judge every single piece of information — I wouldn’t try to — but I would say that there has to be that balance and there has to be that level of maturity because it’s likely that, that the leak of some of that information could cause the death of some of our own people or some of our allies.”

    Second quote of General McChrystal

    Update 7:11pm: General McChrystal on the media’s scrutiny of “leaders”…

    “I think that media, both the amount of scrutiny, but also the speed at which scrutiny comes now, has changed the environment for leaders in ways that we don’t even fully comprehend yet. For example, a leader even at a fairly junior level, will make an act. It will be in the media very quickly, it will, ‘go viral,’ as they say, before additional facts can be gained, before there’s time for people to take a deep breath, and actually assess what has happened before people have time to put different perspectives on the story.

    So leaders, despite best efforts to try and project good information — of course, most forces are trained to project only the truth, so they tend not to be as fast as someone who doesn’t bear that same responsibility — so it causes a leader to operate in an area where even a perceived problem or mistake is attacked suddenly. I would argue that theres great danger on leaders here, leadership, because I think one thing it will do it cause leaders to be overly cautious, I also think it’s likely have an effect to keep people who would be leaders from entering the field simply because it becomes such a ‘no fail’ experience.”

    Freedom of speech, Responsability, speed of information and leadership.


    2010/10/24 Jina Moore
    – Afficher le texte des messages précédents –


  • Fred Mwasa says:

    Dear Jina Moore, I have just been reading you posting on journalism in Rwanda and the organisations that assess its nature. I have been a journalist myself, and but have now moved more into research. Coincidentally, am working on something similar to what your piece was about. Am looking at how media rights organisations have assessed press freedom in Rwanda. What would be your advise?

    Please contact me though my email.


  • Fred Mwasa says:

    Hello everybody, I am looking forward to your support on how I can progress on the above posting.


  • Jean-Baptiste Ndahumba says:

    It is really interesting to see how the Wikileaks case is handled by the media and various institutions or by individuals who represent them. First, the assumption of a completely transparent society is an illusion, when we attend consultations between the world-renowned newspapers and government officials before publishing certain information published by Wikileaks. Secondly, we are surprised to see that clearly, there are two weights and two measures when the interests of some countries whose secrets must be preserved while others must sacrifice themselves to meet the First Amendment . Thirdly, where are RSF, Amnesty International and HR to defend Mr. Julian Assange wanted for a crime he did not commit a priori (?) because obviously, he is being prosecuted unfairly for other reasons, etc.. .

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