To justify his control over the media since taking power, Paul Kagame has exploited Rwanda’s collective memory of the 1994 genocide, an era when the media stirred up racial hatred. A journalist critical of the government was killed in unclear circumstances in January 2023, in what the authorities said was a traffic accident.
Beaten down by decades of oppression, the Rwandan media landscape is one of the poorest in Africa. TV channels are controlled by the government or by owners who are members of the ruling party. Most radio stations concentrate on music and sports to avoid problems. In a country of 12 million people, there is no longer a single national newspaper. Investigative journalism is not widely practiced, and journalists who have tried to circulate sensitive or critical content via YouTube or other online outlets in recent years have received harsh sentences.
Paul Kagame’s reelection for a fifth term in August 2017 reinforced the regime’s authoritarianism and censorship. Media owners must pledge allegiance to the government, and many journalists have been forced to attend a patriotism programme or become members of the ruling party. The authorities can intervene directly to fire those who resist. The memory of the genocide and hate media, such as Radio Mille Collines, is widely exploited to prevent the expression of any dissent or criticism.
Defamation has been decriminalised but the 2018 penal code reform maintained prison sentences for insulting and defaming the president in the media. The authorities often prosecute journalists for reasons unrelated to their work or treat them as activists, a classic technique for claiming not to detain any journalists. The illegal surveillance of journalists' phone communications makes it hard for them to protect the confidentiality of their sources.
The advertising market is limited by the absence of a strong private sector independent of the ruling party. Corruption is widespread and some journalists are offered advantages to influence their coverage. The precarious nature of media jobs and the strong pressures and intimidation in the sector put off younger people, who gravitate more readily towards PR jobs that are better paid and less risky.
The spectre of the genocide still haunts the collective memory and genocide-related reporting must conform to the Kagame government's vision. The weight of three decades of fear and a culture of silence constrains freedom of expression, complicating the work of journalists.
Many methods are used in Rwanda to prevent journalists from working freely, including surveillance, espionage, arrest, and enforced disappearance. Since 1996, nine journalists have been killed or reported missing, and 35 have been forced into exile. Several journalists, including some living abroad, are on the Rwandan government’s list of potential targets for surveillance using the Pegasus spyware. It is also common for intelligence agents to follow journalists on assignment, without bothering to be discreet. Arbitrary arrests and detention have increased in recent years, and journalists working online are also being persecuted. The botched investigation and trial of the man accused of killing website editor John Williams Ntwali in a road accident on 19 January 2023 failed to shed light on most of the circumstances of Ntwali’s death and confirmed the level of impunity for crimes committed against journalists in Rwanda.