Politics and Freedom of Expression: PART I

It’s been a while since I’ve discussed politics on this blog – not because I haven’t been thinking about it (because I have been thinking about it constantly) but because I’ve needed time to formulate my thoughts.

Many of you – friends and family – have asked me about the controversy of the elections, the bombing on August 11, and the recent U.N. Report claiming a double-genocide in Rwanda. I have my own thoughts on all three of these topics, but honestly, I think that it’s more important for me to share with you the perspective of Rwandans I have spoken to rather than detail my own barely formulated opinions.



Upcoming Inauguration Ceremony for President Kagame

I will do this in two parts – first, I want to discuss freedom of expression in Rwanda. Second, I want to examine recent events and the current political situation. To preface both posts, I want to emphasize that the perspectives outlined here by no means represent the views of the entire country or my own views (although my presentation may obviously be biased). I also want to note that I will not be naming names for the privacy of the individuals with whom I have spoken.

The goal of this blog is not only to document my experiences in Rwanda but to also inform and challenge existing perceptions, and invite dialogue on controversial topics. My hope is not only for you, my Readers, to learn something new about Rwanda from reading my posts, but to also encourage you to question your former conceptions of Rwanda – and maybe even of Africa – and reexamine these beliefs and the means by which you arrived at them.

Why Does Rwanda Need Freedom of Expression?”

It is Friday night and we are at QQP (Quelque Parts) sitting around a table of Fantas and Primus beers. The setting is laid-back and chill – there’s some lively music in the background, you can hear soft laughter from the other thatched huts, and the only lighting is the soft glow of lanterns along the stone walkway. But the silent darkness in our hut is anything but relaxed. A couple uncomfortable shifting chairs break the heavy tension as I clear my throat.

Er … I don’t know,” I say. My chair contributes its own awkward squeak as I shift away from the question. “I don’t really know how to answer that. That’s a good question.”

A conversation that began as a simple introduction and a couple questions about my stay in Rwanda, turned into a discussion of the August 11 bombing, which quickly exploded into a heated debate about freedom of expression in Rwanda.

How did we start talking about the bombing? I don’t quite remember. I think that I was talking about my evening class and I mentioned that I would temporarily be teaching the class of the teacher who had passed away in the attack.

The first response: “Wait. Someone died in the bombing?”

The second: “Yeah, one person.”

My response: “No, three people died.”

Everybody else’s response: DISBELIEF. “No.” “Impossible.” “Really?” “No way.”

When I assured them that yes, I knew for a fact that three people had died in the bombing and I had attended one of the funerals – to be honest, I expected shock or indignation.

The actual response? Most people just shrugged, nodded their concurrence with my statement, and continued their conversations with lit cigarettes, beers, and fantas.

I became very indignant and (perhaps because I was a tad emboldened at the time) rather out-spoken. “Wait a moment,” I said, “How is that okay? How is it okay that a bombing happens and the government can choose to not report the accurate number of deaths?”

Well, that got the fantas and beers back on the table.

My incredulity at the lack of freedom of expression was matched by the incredulity of my peers who overwhelmingly saw the rationality of the government’s restriction on “negative reports” on Rwanda. Why bother publishing a larger number and inciting more fear among the people, and further marring international perceptions of Rwanda when you could easily avoid all the trouble by reporting just one death on the second page of the newspaper?

So ‘Ignorance is bliss‘?” I asked. And ‘what you don’t know won’t hurt you‘? As Rwandan citizens, you’re totally fine with not hearing the truth about events in Rwanda?”

The answer? Yes. Given the history in Rwanda, where the radio and newspapers were used to fuel hatred, retribution, and violence – many Rwandans believe that the Rwandan government has every right, and in fact it is the duty of the government, to take the measures that will ensure that the media won’t be abused again. These measures include removing all negative content about Rwanda from the media and, in some cases, shutting down the newspapers that do not conform to these measures.

I’ve briefly mentioned The New Times before as the sole English newspaper in Kigali. It is also the newspaper of FPR (although in America, I guess we call Kagame’s party “RPF” for Rwanda Patriotic Front?). Open up any issue and you will see pages of praise for Kagame’s party; any information about the activities of oppositional candidates is either omitted or included in the form of scathingly vicious editorials. There is absolutely nothing negative written about Rwanda – and by “negative,” I mean articles that expose poverty, corruption, or suffering. There’s no doubt about it, The New Times is a joke of journalism and even Rwandans acknowledge this and laugh at the blatantly biased newspaper. If Rwandan citizens buy daily issues for their coffee tables but dismiss The New Times as government propaganda, certainly it is understandable why the international community also doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the newspaper?

Of course any discussion of freedom of expression would have to tie into my current project with the film industry, which has the priority of accomplishing the very opposite of censorship. I spoke with one of the members of the Cinema Centre who told me about how many of the Centre’s writers have tried to publish articles in The New Times but were rejected for “exposing poverty or negative situations” instead of focusing on Rwanda’s progress and many achievements. My friend said, “In Kampala, people talk about the president. Here, if you want to say something [negative] about the president, you whisper.” Last year, this same friend was commissioned by a Belgian(?) company to shoot a documentary about the slums in Rwanda, but was immediately denied permission. “A lot of business you can cover in Rwanda,” he said to me, “but not the poor.” Now, the film has been recommissioned to examine slums in Kenya.

Both my peers and my Cinema Centre friend acknowledge that “there is no freedom of expression” in Rwanda, but unlike my peers who accept and embrace this, my film friend sighs and shakes his head. “It is not good,” he says.

Ironically though, the government frequently relies upon the Cinema Centre to produce propaganda material for the RPF. My friend’s thoughts on this: “The government comes to you. You are not paid well but you cannot complain. You have to promote the president. We did a lot of free works because we need to contribute.”

Returning to the original question voiced by one of my peers at the meeting: Why does Rwanda need freedom of expression?

Historical context matters. As does an acknowledgment of the many strides Rwanda has taken since 1994 – the fact that there is a rising film industry, a Rwanda Writers Association, a growing music industry, increasing recognition of the arts, and the reintroduction of Rwandan history into the school curriculum. As an American who has never known life without freedom of expression, do I really have the grounds to assert that Rwanda needs to be like America? How necessary is freedom of expression especially when it has the potential to undermine stability and security? Is there a line that has to be drawn when freedom of expression works against the peace and unity the country has tried so hard to build between its people? But then again, are these merely excuses for those in the government to control and preserve their power? Is freedom of expression limited for the good of Rwandans and the good of the country, or is the censorship used for the good of those in power?

Food for thought.