By Tom Rhodes/Africa Program Coordinator
APJournalists in Kigali are on tenterhooks after President Paul Kagame, left, made new accusations of their supposed involvement in a bomb attack in Rwanda. Just months before Rwanda’s presidential elections, Kigali was recently hit by two grenade attacks that killed two people and injured 30 others, according to news reports.
In a press conference last week, Kagame accused Lt. Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former ambassador to India and chief of staff, and another senior ex-military officer, Patrick Karegyeya, of polotting the first grenade attack. The president went on to say that journalists had met with Karegyeya in South Africa prior to the attacks, leaving a not-so-subtle implication of impropriety. “There are those [journalists] who found Karegeya in South Africa and spoke to him. There are even those who went there, but have not returned,” he said.
No journalists were named, but Charles Kabonero and Jean Bosco Gasasira, founders of two private vernacular weeklies, knew that the president’s message was aimed at them. Both papers had conducted interviews with Karegyeya. For his part, Kabonero makes no apologies. "I believe that Kagame is educated enough to know that, as a journalist, if I had a chance to meet [Osama] bin Laden I would not hesitate to do it [in order to] to get news. It’s the job. So, yes, I met Karegyeya for journalism-related purposes,” he told CPJ.
Nyamwasa and Karegyeya have left Rwanda, but Nyamwasa has denied the president’s allegations in interviews with international news outlets. Over the weekend, the former president of the Rwanda Journalist Association, Deo Mushayidi, was arrested in connection with the recent grenade attacks. Prosecutor General Martin Ngoga announced at a press conference that Mushayidi was part of a network of people threatening Rwanda’s security.
This is not the first time the Rwandan government has accused independent journalists of involvement in a bomb attack. The pro-government bimonthly magazine, The Rwanda Focus, claimed in April 2006 that Kabonero conspired with a military officer to launch a wave of bombings in Kigali. Reporters Without Borders investigated the allegations and claimed the allegations were baseless.
Further, Rwanda is not the only African country that accuses journalists of conducting terrorist activities. In December 2008, freelance award-winning journalist Andrison Manyere was seized and imprisoned for nearly four months in Zimbabwe on false bombing charges. Another Zimbabwean freelancer, Frank Chikowore, was arrested on false charges in April 2009 for allegedly setting a bus on fire. Both arrests and accusations occurred around tense election periods.
Godwin Agaba, a Rwandan correspondent for the Ugandan online publication 256 News, went into hiding after he heard Kagame’s televised remarks. The reporter, who has written about Nyamwasa, was warned to stop writing about the general, a vocal critic to the president, according to CPJ sources.
In fact, any interviews with critics of the current regime seem to raise eyebrows with the president. During the same press conference last week, Kagame singled out the Nairobi-based regional weekly, The East African, which he described as “insulting” and “offensive,” for interviewing opposition candidate Victoire Ingabire, according to the Kenya-based Media Institute.
One thing is clear: Kagame’s televised warnings will help silence critics prior to the August presidential election. With pro-government media outlets outweighing the country’s beleaguered private press, the chances of balanced election coverage are now slimmer than ever.