By Mary Kaymagistad
Step into Contact FM’s studios in the Rwandan capital Kigali, and you pass posters of Bob Marley, Che Guevara, Jimi Hendrix and Tupak Shakur – all favorites of the station’s founder, Albert Rudatsimburwa.
“And did you see Mohammed Ali, above my desk?” Rudatsimburwa says, running a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair as he enters his cluttered office. The poster is of a young, weaving Mohammed Ali, with the line, “I’m so fast, last night I switched out the lights and was in bed before the room was dark.”
Not a bad slogan for a radio station that started out, in the last days of 2004, to bring something fresh to the Rwandan radio scene.
“When we started, there was only the state radio,” says Rudatsimburwa, who had just returned from Belgium, where he grew up. “That was the model. So we wanted to show what it could be, having entertaining morning shows, nice news. There had been a kind of post-genocide trauma, self-censorship culture. So we were trying to tell people that things could be different.”
Radio has had a dark side in Rwanda. The station Radio Mille Collines helped incite the 1994 genocide that killed more than 800,000 people. Even now, radio remains Rwanda’s most popular media source – not surprising, given that a quarter of the population is illiterate, and many people are too poor to buy a television.
Half a generation has passed since Rwanda’s genocide, and half the population is now under 18. Contact FM’s approach is to provide smart, hip programming for a young population, and it seems to be working. It now has about two million listeners – a fifth of all Rwandans – offering a mix of music, humor, call-in-shows, debate and news.
“Bonjour!” Rudatsimburwa calls out cheerily, as he enters the newsroom for the morning editorial meeting. The dozen or so young reporters swivel their chairs to face him, or get up and sit on the edges of desks. They talk through the stories in play – switching between English, French and Kinyarwanda – the local language.
One story in the works on this morning is about an illegal government detention center, for street kids and vagrants.
“So who decides when you can walk out? Based on what?” asks Rudatsimburwa.
“They decide every two weeks whom to release,” replies reporter Richard Ndayambaje, who has been assigned to the story. “Maybe they let you go for the weekend,” another one jokes.
Rudatsimburwa laughs with everyone else, makes his own joke in Kinyarwandan, and then pulls attention back to the story. “If this center is illegal, someone has to explain how come it’s there. It might be a positive thing, but if it’s illegal, it’s illegal.”
Later, I ask the reporter, Ndayambaje, what happens if he writes something the government doesn’t like?
“You never know what happens to you,” he says. “But all you have to do as a journalist, I think, is report the truth, and wait to see what happens, whether the story has an impact. But I think the more the media develop in Rwanda, the more those incidents are becoming less.”
Ndayambaje, 25, says things are already better than when he started out in professional journalism four years ago. There are now dozens of Rwandan news media outlets, and the government is getting more used to being questioned. It’s even considering passing freedom of information legislation.
But critics of the government say press freedom in Rwanda remains seriously limited.
“Everyone now knows the very negative role the media played in the run-up to the genocide, and I think any responsible government would take measures to avoid that.” says Carina Tersakian, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch who was kicked out of Rwanda last year, and now lives in London. “But what has been happening is that this vaguely defined offense of genocide ideology has been used to target government critics, not only journalists but also opposition politicians and ordinary Rwandans.”
According to a Rwandan Senate report, about 200 people were convicted on the charge of genocide ideology from 2001 to 2006. Some were sentenced to years in prison. Rights groups have expressed concern about how many journalists have been convicted on this charge.
Shyaka Kamura, editor of the newspaper Rwanda Focus, says such rights groups should take a closer look at what some of the convicted journalists have been writing.
“You’ll find someone writing that Hutus, actually it’s their time to rise up,” he says. “We are talking just 17 years after the genocide. And they’ll be publishing stuff that includes incitement.”
President Paul Kagame makes no apologies for restricting speech he believes could incite old hatreds or reopen old wounds. And he makes no attempt to hide his disdain for international human rights groups that criticize his government.
“We live in this world where some people think they are more right, even more righteous, than others,” he said at a recent news conference. “They set the standard; they want others to do what they are doing, and so on and so forth.” And here, he paused and chuckled softly to himself. “But then, down the road, the very people who claim this position really start messing up, and it undermines their credibility.”
Kagame’s supporters say he has helped bring Rwanda back from the dead, that his government has restored social stability, built up the economy, and encouraged reconciliation – mostly. Others say he rules with too heavy a hand. Some ask why Kagame suspended two newspapers critical of him in the run-up to last year’s national elections, why several journalists say they received threats or had been roughed up, and had to flee the country.
Vocal critic Charles Ingabire fled the country – and was living in Uganda when he was shot dead on November 30, coming out of a bar. He had edited the online Inyenyeri News, which was known for being critical of the government. Another journalist, Jean Leonard Rugambage, deputy editor of Umuvugizi newspaper, was killed in Rwanda last year. His colleagues say he had, at the time, been investigating the shooting in South Africa of a Rwandan general, Kayumba Nyamwasa, who’d fallen out with Kagame. The government has denied involvement in both cases. Rights groups have called for independent investigations.
“The climate for independent journalists in Rwanda right now is pretty bleak,” says Carina Tersakian of Human Rights Watch.
By “‘independent,’ she means those who criticize the government. Rwanda Focus editor Shyaka Kanuma argues that there is room for criticism – not for lies.
“I wouldn’t mind if it were legitimate criticism. But here I am, a Rwandan. I know my country very well. I know the problems we have. I know that Paul Kagame is not a perfect president. He is not a perfect person. But when I see the terrible lies people tell. I know the kinds of challenges we face as journalists in this country. I know the kind of challenges we get accessing information. But does that amount to abuse of human rights? Far from the case!”
Back at Contact FM, owner Albert Rudatsimburwa says journalism still has a long way to go in Rwanda, but he and his staff are trying. The station now has a weekend talk show, called Crossfire. He says the show’s free exchange of ideas can get pretty heated. I ask if there’s also room in Rwanda for political satire – something like The Daily Show.
“I think that is still – that will take some time. You need the material to brew a political satire,” he says. “You need to see what politicians are doing. And most of the time, it’s not public enough, what they do.”
Then again, he says there’s a funny video on Youtube of a Rwandan comedian at a soiree, imitating President Kagame, while Kagame listened at a nearby table.
“Same voice, same everything, you know? And you could see, some guys in the room were wondering, ‘is this correct?’ And even the president was there. But because he had a big laugh, so everyone relaxed. But before that, I could see that some of them were stressed.”
What Rwandans need, even more than satire, Rudatsimburwa says, is to lose their submissive attitude toward power.
“People need to understand that in a society like this, people are citizens,” he says. And in a society where you have citizens, we’re not supposed to be treated as subjects. There’s not a king there.”
The call-in programs at Contact FM try to encourage people to speak up. And never are there more calls, Rudatsimburwa says, than in the week each April when the station opens up the lines to commemorate the genocide. Survivors call in. A couple of perpetrators have called in to tell their side of the story, and to apologize.
“We also had a call – a guy said, ‘you know what we did in ’94, we’ll do it again.’
The caller’s phone number was traced, and he was arrested.
These days, Rudatsimburwa says more young people are calling in, and talking about the genocide as history. About half of Rwandans are too young to remember it. The government’s policy to squelch hate speech and even mentions of ethnic divisions means they’ve grown up thinking of themselves, not as Hutu or Tutsi, but as Rwandan. Whether that’s come at too high a cost to free speech is open to debate.
But a recent survey by the Prosperity Index in London found that most Rwandans adults feel they have adequate personal freedoms, and trust their government; less than a third trust each other.