The past few weeks have been a period of some reflection for Rwanda’s media fraternity after the arraignment of Mr. Shyaka Kanuma, Editor in Chief of the Rwanda Focus, a defunct local newspaper.
Having worked with him in the Rwanda Focus, I thought it important to provide a few facts on the way this business was running and probably the underlying reasons as to why he allegedly made a career switch.
To start with, Kanuma owes my colleagues and I over Rwf40 million in salaries for the last several months and terminal benefits. Despite the fact that he had received payments from advertisers and other sources, he still failed honour the contractual obligations we had together. We as former employees of The Rwanda Focus and Focus Media had taken this matter to different authorities. We lodged an appeal to Gasabo District Labour Office on 28 October 2016, and involved Rwanda Media Commission, Media High Council, Rwanda Governance Board and Labour Syndicate (SENJOUSMEL) to no avail. On 22 December 2016 we lodged judicial proceedings because we knew the law had to help us to recover what we were owed for our work.
Now, I hate to break solidarity with a fellow journalist but he’s no longer a journalist, is he? He publicly announced that he was now moving into political “activism”. Of course he’s no longer my boss because he abruptly shut down our paper without warning, refused to pay the staff and other debts, then ran off to fundraise for his new business venture! I would consider this move a fair one if he had cleared all the debts he owed to his employees, the landlord etc. This activism is all intended to confuse both national and international opinion and cover his misdeeds.
Why would a veteran journalist and newspaper owner do something like this? Why would a seemingly independent Rwandan journalist, a proud African, go begging for money from the embassies of UK, USA and Uganda? There is no free lunch as we all know, so what were these embassies asking for in return? Your guess is as good as mine.
There had been clues all along the way, I just hadn’t paid enough attention. Now that Kanuma is accused of financial misdeeds, including tax evasion and refusal to pay debts owed to several people, I was forced to look back and think deeper about who we have been working for and what mess we may have unknowingly got ourselves into.
Rwanda Focus was once an authoritative paper. Our team tried its best to report accurately on Rwandan issues. We understood that many newspapers had failed due to poor quality, competition and failure to adapt to new media platforms but we seemed to be doing ok as an English-language news source over the years, even though circulation and website traffic wasn’t that good.
I now realise that we were kept afloat by Shyaka Kanuma’s harassment of targeted companies and public institutions, where he would demand large sums of cash as compensation for not writing negative stories about those companies or about Rwandan politics and politicians. I remember this was common practice in the past with newspapers like Umuseso and Newsline, which had Kanuma as one of the founders. It’s not the first time he has pretended to be an activist hero to get money and attention; he did the same thing in 2001 to get the CNN African journalist of the year award.
I never paid attention to the business or finance part of the paper but like it emerged, Focus is being investigated for tax evasion, to the tune of 150 million Rwandan francs. Several institutions are also claiming that the paper, through Kanuma, got millions of taxpayer francs through fraudulent means. For me, it would be interesting to know where all this money went, because it definitely wasn’t invested in the Focus newspaper business.
I had always felt that this term “blackmail journalism” was being used unfairly to describe some media operations in Rwanda. But this experience that cost us a livelihood has also dented my belief in journalism as a noble profession, as a service to society. When your former employer and editor in chief brags about how he has a guaranteed source of financing from embassies after the government refused to give him any more money, when he loudly brags that he has even told this to the chief of intelligence services in his office, and he doesn’t care anymore, you can’t help but react in shock and disbelief.
We need a responsible press and good, independent, ethical journalists in our country. And we also need a confident, active civil society and committed independent activists that protect and promote the rights of Rwandans, not take orders from foreign agents who have their own agenda, as we know from Africa’s long experience with divide and conquer tactics. Un-crossable lines have been crossed and I cannot let this go without comment.
Written by Alex Rutareka
The writer worked with Rwanda Focus