Forbidden Stories: Seasoned Rwandan journalists denounce ‘Rwanda Classified’ campaign

On 8 June 2024 at 10:40

Over the past few days, social media has been awash with a series of stories titled "Rwanda Classified" that accuse the government of various ills, including repression and suppression of freedom of expression. The stories have been crafted by a group of more than 50 journalists mostly European and drawn from 17 media outlets, whom authorities accuse of a well-orchestrated plan to dent Rwanda’s image ahead of the general elections slated for July.

The Rwanda Classified project coordinated by Forbidden Stories, a platform run by Freedom Voices Network, alleges widespread silencing of local journalists. However, seasoned Rwandan journalists, who spoke to IGIHE, had no kind words for the faces behind the narrative.

Kigali Today journalist Edmund Kagire who has been practising in the local media for the last 17 years said the malicious accusations are not new.

“What we saw is a regurgitation of the same accusations, the same things only that they come with different sort of language. But at the end of the day these are the same accusations differently dressed and endorsed by one of our own, who left the country the other day,” Kagire said while referring to investigative journalist Samuel Baker Byansi at the centre of the Rwanda Classified project.

He added, “Everybody knows what he is up to and people have been responding to him and him being part of the project. I don’t know if it’s a positive for the authors of the report, maybe they could have done a little bit of research to find out his history and track record. He is not one person you are going to rely on. If you look at his tweets a few years back, not more than two years ago, they portray a totally different image of what he says Rwanda is.”

While acknowledging that there were areas to improve, he insisted that over his nearly two-decade career, he has never been coerced by the powers that be to drop a story.

“We are not saying Rwanda is a bed of roses they say even a bed of roses has thorns. The media, just like any other sector in Rwanda, is a work in progress,” the scribe noted, adding that Rwanda was a target of propaganda from foreign actors with vested interests.

“I think when you are a bit progressive in what you are doing people pay attention and some people might not be impressed by the progress you are making and they try to stain it. In a way, it’s a good thing. I think it keeps us in check. It’s not just the media even the government gets all those sorts of reports. They have been resilient, they have carried on. Even as journalists, we have to be resilient in the midst of all these accusations.”

Marie Louise, a journalist with Intego News, believes most foreign journalists have a distorted view of Rwanda. She attributes this to a lack of understanding of the country’s complex social context and its painful history, particularly the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. The horrific event, which claimed the lives of over a million people, was the culmination of decades of ethnic tensions fueled by Belgian colonial rule.

“If you are in a country, you need to understand the context, the society, and the culture. If you combine all of this, you know what to do as a journalist. Because always, when you are in America, you can say you are independent. When you reach here in Rwanda, you can say you are not independent because of the different fields of operations,” she said adding that she has never received threats from "officials" in the current administration to kill a story.

Rwanyange Rene Anthere, the Managing Editor of Panorama, highlighted the importance of journalists practising self-censorship when handling extremely sensitive topics that could cause harm to society. He insisted, however, that he could not be subject to censorship by the state.

“In the line of my career, no one has told me or forced me to drop my story,” he stated.

Rwanda Media Commission (RMC) is the body responsible for media self-regulation in Rwanda.

The institution is charged with enforcing the journalistic code of ethics, acting as the primary and highest adjudicator of complaints against the media, representing the broader interests of journalists, and defending media freedom and media consumers in general.

Mugisha Emmanuel, the Executive Secretary of RMC, told IGIHE that since the establishment of the media policy in 2011, the institution has made huge strides in bringing order in the crucial sector.

“Where we are today as media, there is a leap that we’ve made, basing on the existing laws, the existing legal frameworks, basing on the existing infrastructure, basing on the school of journalism that we never had before, that we now have, basing on different engagement initiatives that I’m telling you about, like that one whereby we initiated, we initiated that session where we have media and security organs meet to discuss. This is what we need to improve so that we can do our service to the public better and also contribute to nation-building. It’s nowhere across the globe,” Mugisha said.

Mugisha dismissed the Rwanda Classified stories as fake news, insisting that the claims made in the reports were not anchored on any facts.

“When you look at what is being spread in those media houses and what the 50 people and the 17 media houses met, they were discussing about. In my view, they lack verified facts about what they’re saying. If I would put it in one word, that is fake news. That is misinforming…Maybe people are judging us from where they sit and not with our own context. That is very wrong,” he said.

“Let them come, investigate, do their own stories. Don’t sit wherever you sit and agree that this narrative they want to spread about Rwanda and confuse the whole world because you have the platform. Media isn’t supposed to be used like that. Media has ethics that govern how to feed the public. If you don’t follow that, then you’re becoming a misinformer, you’re becoming something else, not a journalist.”

Poking holes in Samuel Becker’s perspective about the Rwandan media environment, Mugisha noted, “Maybe if they can come up with facts that are verified, with authentic sources, and they publish whatever they are saying without bias, with objectivity, and not subjective to harming ABCD, I think their stories can be given credibility. But as of now, I doubt.”