Written by Julia Traunspurger

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  • Area: 26.340 square kilometres
  • Population: approx. 11 Mio.
  • Capital: Kigali
  • State form: semi-presidential republic
  • Official language: Kinyarwanda, English, French
  • Religion: Christian (82 per cent)

  • Flag of Rwanda

    Rwandans history is marked by a cruel and outstanding genocide in 1994, in which almost one million people lost their lives due to racial violence between Hutu and Tutsi. Since then the Rwandan government has taken great strides in bringing stability back to the country. Especially the cruel role of the media during the genocide has led to law restrictions. The constitution provides and guarantees freedom of the press, freedom of expression and access to information. However, it contains a penal code and the vaguely defined crimes of divisionism and discrimination. All of these laws were made with the intention to prevent any racial tension and violence. Topics of genocide or race are taboo. Also criticism of the government, especially of President Paul Kagame, is seen as an action ‘misleading the nation’. The government maintains its power to regulate the media market via advertising, ownership structures and market entries. State-owned newspapers and broadcasters dominate media offers and media use. Journalists are practicing self-censorship due to the uncertain legal situation and the social and political pressure on topics relating to genocide or racial violence. Additionally, there are only few training possibilities and low salary leading to low quality and corruption. Even though Rwanda does not have any formal attachment of the press to guiding principles, the state and its associates operate as the prime contractors. Therefore, the media system in Rwanda can be characterized as Clientelism type. The following report is based on NGO reports, literature and an expert interview conducted in February 2017.
    Communication policy and regulations
    Political Environment
    Since the genocide in 1994 that claimed more than 800,000 lives, the Rwandan government has taken great strides in bringing stability to the country (CPJ, 2014: 1). To fully understand the media system of Rwanda it is inevitable to take a look back at the role of the media during the 1990s and the time of the genocide. People in Rwanda were divided into two ethnics: Hutu (majority) and Tutsi (minority); an old differentiation dating back to the time of colonialism first of the Germans and continued by the Belgians. Especially in the 1990s Hutu, holding up the governmental power, feared the new political Tutsi party Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) (Des Forges, 2008: 41). So “the birth of Radio-Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM) in 1993 could not have come at a better time for Rwanda’s Hutu elite. Finally, here was a radio station they could use as a mouthpiece for their ideals and a means to propagate their ethno-political war against the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)” (Kimani, 2008: 110).

    Together with the newspaper Kangura, RTLM became the mouthpiece of Hutu power. While both had strong ties to the government in a climate of fear, these media offered a “license to kill” (Bromley, 2011: 50). However, it was not only the media that led to the genocide in May 1994 but afterwards the role of the media was heavily criticized. Additionally, “the importance of radio to the Rwandan genocide became particularly clear in 2003 when the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) found two radio journalists (Ferdinand Nahimana and Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, founders of RTLM) and a print journalist (Hassan Ngeze, the founder and editor of Kangura, a local newspaper) guilty of genocide“ (Baisley, 2014: 39).

    The past presented an enormous challenge to the Rwandan Patriotic Front Government that overthrew the mainly Hutu led former government to end the genocide and to rehabilitate the media (Kalyango & Vultee, 2012: 124). Today Rwanda is facing a seesawing between control and independence, between restriction and authorization (Frerè, 2009: 343). The question is, “How can a government seeking to replace a racist, totalitarian dictatorship with a pluralist, multi-ethnic democracy reconcile respect for freedom of the press with the need to prevent a return to genocidal propaganda” (ibid: 341). However, the genocidal discourse still exists in some exiled Hutu communities abroad. Together with growing criticism from within the government the new administration slowly adopted a harsher attitude towards the media (ibid: 342). Especially from a western point of view the President Paul Kagame and his party RPF is criticized for their control and limitation of the media system. Making his points clear in different interviews Kagame criticized “irresponsible media, suggesting that tight controls are necessary to preserve national unity and guard against a return to ethnic violence. Kagame has also bristled at critical reports in the international press, implying that they are fraught with double standards from the developed world and that press freedom allowed for reports that incited genocide” (CPJ, 2014: 4). Reporters Without Borders and Rwandan journalists exiled aboard describe President Kagame as “an enemy of the press”. In its Press Freedom Index (2016) Rwanda is ranked 161 out of 180 countries. According to Freedom House, the countries press is not free.

    Regulatory Bodies
    Due to the special role of media before, it took the post-genocidal government a long time to adopt a press law. The Media High Council (MHC), which was formerly known as the High Council of the Press (HCP) was first established by this new press law in 2002 (Article 73). It is described as an “autonomous body as far as press is concerned” (Media High Council, 2017). Like in other African countries (Uganda, Ghana, South Africa) new regulatory bodies face a two-fold problem: “On the one hand, it is not at all clear how freedom of the press can be guaranteed in contexts where those in government, (…) are little inclined to relax controls on the media sector and frequently return to attacking, rebuking and even arresting or imprisoning journalists. On the other hand, monitoring the content of the media in order to ensure respect for pluralism and balanced news coverage is a very sensitive issue when tensions are high and the risk of inter-communal violence remains” (Frerè, 2009: 329). MHC is still an oversight body with a majority of members appointed by the government which reflects this ambiguous role. After two restructurations in 2002 and 2009the MHC is now “responsible for media capacity building” (Media High Council, 2017).

    The 2013 media law also established the Rwanda Media Commission (RMC), a self-regulatory body staffed by journalists. The RMC gives recommendations to the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA), which withdraws or issues licenses. The commissioners of RMC are representatives of civil society, academics, and journalists. Its authorization includes enforcing advocating for media freedom, media ethics, and speaking on behalf of the media. Even though publications and broadcasters are required to register, accreditation for journalists is voluntary (CPJ 2014: 13). RMC had been known to push back against government violations on press freedom (Freedom House, 2016). The most known tension between the government and RMC was the BBC case in 2014. BBC’s Kinyarwanda-language Great Lakes radio service was suspended in October 2014 after the BBC Two television network released a controversial documentary about Rwanda’s 1994 genocide (

    Legal Environment
    “A new law regulating media in 2013 introduced some protection, removed a number of restrictions, and loosened direct government control” (CPJ, 2014: 11). The constitution (2003) asserts in Article 38 that “freedom of press, of expression and of access to information are recognized and guaranteed by the State”. However, the preceding article specifies that “all propaganda of an ethnic, regionalist or racist nature or based on any other form of distinction is punishable by law”. Other broadly worded clauses allow for interference, restrictions and censorship. Especially the penal code forbid defamation of the head of state or other public officials. Violations can be punished with up to five years in prison. Others are the vaguely defined crimes of divisionism and discrimination. The looseness of the definition is any ideas based on “ethnic, regional, racial, religious, language or other divisive characteristics”. Therefore, it offers an extensive flexibility for the government in dealing with critical journalists (such as in other African countries – for example Ghana) (Freedom House, 2016; CPJ, 2014; Frerè 2009: 347). Rwanda is one of 11 African countries that have Access to Information laws even though it is reported that government still favors public media instead of private-owned (CPJ, 2014: 12; Media Sustainability Index, 2012: 326).
    Media offers
    Challenges and Offers
    After the genocide in 1994 when the RPF armed forces brought an end to the massacres, much of Rwanda’s infrastructure had been devastated by the violence. More than 50 journalists were killed in the genocide, others were imprisoned, fled and almost all printing facilities had been de-stroyed. Journalists who had run a RPF exile station restarted Radio Rwanda “with a board of directors dominated by the military and a brief to promote the new policy of unity and reconcilia-tion“ (CPJ, 2014: 8). Since then broadcasting has boomed. Eight of more than 30 radio stations and one of the 5 television channels are run by the public broadcaster (ibid).

    However, media outlets faced some hard challenges emerging from the armed conflict and strong social tensions. The state-given role of the media was to restore a culture of negotiation, balanced verbal agreement and restoring a culture of dialogue (Frerè, 2009: 329). Therefore, public media still enjoy little freedom from the government (Media Sustainability Index, 2012: 326). Re-strictions for private media offers are in the market entry, advertising and ownership. Market en-try for media outlets remains expensive but ”the government has eliminated taxes on imported media equipment and removed sales tax on domestic media materials to decrease costs and spur future investment“ (Freedom House, 2016a). Still printing at the Rwanda Printing and Publishing Company (RPPC) is expensive. So most newspapers are printed in Uganda. Furthermore, the RPPC denied service to critical newspapers until its privatization in 2014 (ibid). Another limita-tion is due to economic pressure. Big advertisers demand positive coverage about their products or companies. They often ensure that any story, which will lead to unfavorable portrayals is killed. Government subsidies for private media are nonexistent and government-friendly media houses are tended to be favored with advertising (Media Sustainability Index, 2012: 329). ”According to a May 2015 report from the RMC, state advertising is believed to go mostly to the RBA and the semiofficial New Times newspaper“ (Freedom House, 2016a) .

    For the first time since the genocide the 2002 press law authorized private radio and television stations (Waldorf, 2008: 411). Even though there is now a diverse media landscape with more than 50 print publications, 27 radio stations and two television stations, pro-government newspa-pers and radio stations dominate in the Rwandan media landscape. Additionally, state-owned me-dia has the largest audience, and most private outlets do not cover controversial topics (Media Sustainability Index 2012: 326; Freedom House 2016a; Bonde, B. N., Uwimana, J.-P., Sowa, F., & O’Neil, G, 2015). ”The radio is still the main media, Kinyarwanda Radio Rwanda [state-owned] and Radio Salus [privately owned] are popular and Rwanda TV [state-owned]. English language radio and newspaper outlets, like the New Times et al, are kind of PR for the Kigali elite, foreigners, outside observers and investors, but they have almost no influence on the majority of Rwandans who can’t understand English. Umuseso and then Umuvuzigi were well-read Kinyar-wanda tabloid newspapers, but both were banned and their editors fled the country some years ago. What people hear in church, and word of mouth, is very influential“ (Graham Holliday). Holliday also mentioned the role of the now banned BBC Kinyarwanda as it “has some influence, it was probably the only trusted news source according to the Rwandans.“

    Access & Consumption
    Radio is the main media and has by far the largest audience. Newspapers are too expensive and the circulation beyond the borders of the capital Kigali is limited (Waldorf, 2008: 411; Media Sustainability Index, 2012). There exist a broad band of new online media and also offline media options, but all focus on the capital and are not affordable to those living in more rural areas. An-other reason for the dependence on radio and broadcast media for news and information outside of Kigali (ibid.).
    The Media Sustainability Index reports that “the government does not restrict access to either do-mestic or international media. It is primarily the cost that lists full access“ (2012: 328). However, this report was published before the famous case of the BBC banning in 2014 because of the con-troversial documentary Rwanda’s Untold Story (Smith, 2014).
    “Rwanda’s radio stations are essentially devoted to entertainment and to magazine programs fo-cused on social, development or religious issues and carry little general or political news“ (Frerè, 2009: 344). Content especially differ from private media and state or public media. News pro-grams produced by state or public media is said to concentrate on government interests. There also exist community broadcast media ”producing programming that suits the needs of individual communities“ (Media Sustainability Index, 2012: 326).
    Internet is becoming more important with over one third of the Rwandese using it in 2016 (Inter-net World Stats, 2016; Freedom House, 2016b). Yet “internet freedom declined due to increasing online censorship and self-censorship around the topic of presidential term limits in 2015 and 2016“ (ibid). However, there is still more media freedom online than offline even though several independent online news outlet have been blocked. Among those again the BBC’s local language websites were blocked. Pressure on editors to delete critical content or ”toe the government line” is said to be high (Freedom House, 2016b).
    Journalists' autonomy
    Role of the media
    Due to the role of the media during the genocide the new role is seen as nation building and to prevent from any further ethnic violence. This role of the media can also be seen in other African countries (e.g. Uganda). Therefore, the government has built up laws to maintain control over media content or it has built economical structures for it. On the one hand these are necessary to avoid a return to the ethnic battles that tore the country apart in the early 1990s. On the other hand, they are also used against critical articles and journalists. So journalists in Rwanda are facing a very thin line between either being criticized within Rwanda for misleading the nation or outside for just doing PR for the government (CPJ, 2014: 3-4; Graham Holliday).

    Before the genocide in 1994 journalists were either trained ”on the job“ or outside the country. Until the late 1990s there was no school of journalism in Rwanda. In 1996 the School of Journalism and Communication was founded at the National University of Rwanda in Butare. Together with Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication they launched a famous cooperation to work together in early 2006. However, the influence from an outsider was again criticized by officials. Main shortcoming was that a foreigner does not have the same historical background and therefore susceptibility for journalism in Rwanda (Thompson, 2007: 24; 2008). Today entry into the journalism profession is free in Rwanda. The government does not restrict entry into journalism training colleges (Media Sustainability Index, 2012: 326). But if you want an accreditation as a journalist there are some barriers. “To get an accreditation, which is renewed every three years, journalists have to produce a résumé, have police clearance, and provide copies of journalism qualifications“ (CPJ, 2014: 14). Additionally the accreditation can be withdrawn temporarily if someone offends the media law or journalistic code of ethics or permanently if a journalist is convicted of a crime (including the above mentioned crime of divisionism and discrimination) (ibid). 

    Working conditions
    One of the main limitations on the working conditions is self-censorship. Rwanda’s repressive political environment and restrictive laws are the main reasons. Journalists struggle to cover sensitive topics, especially the 1994 genocide and ethnicity (Media Sustainability Index, 2012: 327; CPJ, 2014: 3; Graham Holliday). “The Kagame government is frequently accused by human rights organizations and press freedom monitors of creating a media climate characterized by self-censorship among many journalists and intimidation of journalists by government proxies“ (Thompson, 2007: 25). This self-censorship includes journalist’s fear of losing their lives or their jobs and corruption (Media Sustainability Index, 2012: 327). Many critical journalists have already left the country and even if the situation tends to be better than a few years ago those still fear repression and have not returned yet (Thompson, 2007: 25). Even in exile, in some cases Rwandan journalists are subject to extralegal violence and forced disappearances. Resulting again in a climate of fear (Freedom House, 2016a).
    Journalists working for online newspaper also have to fear being blocked or censored. All provisions of the 2013 media laws apply to online publications. Beside the three BBC websites several opposition blogs and independent online news outlets were inaccessible from inside Rwanda in 2014 and 2015 (most known websites among those are: Umuvugizi, Umusingi, and Inyenyeri News) (Freedom House, 2016a; 2016b; Media Sustainability Index, 2012: 326).
    Graham Holliday described Rwanda as a ”very tough place“ for journalists. Even though he has never felt being under physical threat he points out that ”mind games and paranoia becomes the norm. I was threatened on the phone by a colonel in the army, a Rwandan news outlet published a story written by the army saying that I had ‘misled the nation’. This obviously serves to put you in the spotlight and under a degree of pressure. I was also closely followed by an intelligence officer who masqueraded as a freelance journalist. The accumulation of these kinds of things is wearing psychologically. As a result, I felt very uncomfortable working as a journalist in Rwanda, but it was far worse for my Rwandan colleagues.” In the Index of Media Sustainability Index the harassing of journalists by security personnel is also mentioned (2012: 326). Furthermore, ”the authorities typically fail to prosecute” these agents (ibid.)

    In Rwanda some media are being criticized for their lack of objectivity: ”Most journalists carry out their sourcing from their desks, which often results in very one-sided reporting“ (Media Sustainability Index, 2012: 326). Beside the lack of objectivity a number of factors such as poor training among media professionals, poor management of media houses, a lack of funding to give journalists the tools and support they need to work professionally, as well as greed and corruption have their impact on journalists. Above all the last point is due to low salaries for journalists. Many of the most skilled journalists are seeking for better opportunities elsewhere. Resulting again in lower professionalism, especially in the private media. Some big media houses do pay their journalists better than normal. In 2012 Rwanda Times paid as much as RwF 350,000 ($550) to reporters while freelancers earn between RwF 100,000 and RwF 150,000 (ibid.: 327). However, normally “low salaries, especially in private media, encourage corruption; journalists often alter coverage for bribes, and extortion is common“ (Freedom House, 2016a). One ”speciality“ of this coverage for bribes is the so called brown envelope journalism, which is difficult to avoid when the media cannot properly remunerate staff (CPJ, 2014: 19; see also: Uganda).

    Interviewed experts (February 2017)
    • Graham Holliday, freelance book author and media trainer with the BBC, UN and other large international organizations. Formerly a correspondent in Kigali (2009-2013).

    • Baisley, E. (2014). Genocide and constructions of Hutu and Tutsi in radio propaganda. Race & Class, 55(3), 38–59.
    • Bonde, B. N., Uwimana, J.-P., Sowa, F., & O’Neil, G. (2015). The state of media freedom in Rwanda (pp. 1–168). Rwanda Media Comission. [February 03, 2017].
    • Bromley, R. (2011). Beast, Vermin, Insect – Hate Media and the Construction of the Enemy: The Case of Rwanda, 1990 – 1994. In N. Billias & L. Praeg (Eds.), Creating destruction: constructing images of violence and genocide (Vol. Rodopi, pp. 39–59). Amsterdam ; New York.
    • CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists). (2014). Legacy of Rwanda genocide includes media restrictions, self-censorship. (A special report of the Committee to Protect Journalists). New York. [February 04, 2017].
    • Des Forges, A. (2008). Call to Genocide: Radio in Rwanda, 1994. In Media & the Rwanda Genocide (pp. 41–54). International Development Research Centre.
    • Freedom House. (2016a). Freedom of the Press 2016. Mexico. [January 28, 2017].
    • Freedom House. (2016b). Freedom on the Net. [February 10, 2017].
    • Frere, M.-S. (2009). After the hate media: regulation in the DRC, Burundi and Rwanda. Global Media and Communication, 5(3), 327–352.
    • Internet World Stats. (2016). [February 12, 2017].
    • Kalyango, Y., & Vultee, F. (2012). Public attitudes toward media control and incitement of conflicts in Eastern Africa. Media, War & Conflict, 5(2), 119–137.
    • Smith, D. (2014, October 23). Rwanda calls BBC banned over controversial documentary. The Guardian. [February 07, 2017].
    • Thompson, A. (2007). Journalism training and media freedom in Rwanda. Media Development, 54(4), 24–29.
    • Thompson, A. (2008). The Responsibility to Report: a New Journalistic Paradigm. In Media & the Rwanda Genocide (pp. 433–445). International Development Research Centre.
    • Waldorf, L. (2008). Censorship and Propaganda in Post-Genocide Rwanda. In Media & the Rwanda Genocide (pp. 404–416). International Development Research Centre.

    Related Links
    Recommended citation form
    Julia Traunspurger: Rwanda. In: Michael Meyen (ed.), Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich: Department of Communication Studies and Media Research 2017. (access date).

    Ntarama Genocide Memorial Rwanda

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