Last June, the then Home Office Secretary Priti Patel, tweeted that “the safety of journalists is fundamental to our democracy”. In 2018, she had even condemned how press freedom had been stifled and “journalists criminalised” for reporting on human rights abuses in Myanmar.
But come April 2022, Patel took to Twitter to announce something that has been less palatable to human rights defenders. She launched “a world-leading new partnership with Rwanda” designed to “deter dangerous and illegal journeys to the UK; give migrants the chance of a new life; (and) set a new standard on asylum and resettlement”.
Known as the ‘Rwanda Scheme’, the UK and Rwanda Migration and Economic Partnership will see “tens of thousands” of people seeking asylum in the UK being sent to a country some 10,000 km away. Patel said the UK could do so because Rwanda is a safe country.
But is this true? Is Rwanda a safe country, both for refugees and for journalists?
After I, head of AOAV, was refused journalist accreditation in Rwanda to report on potential human rights abuses on refugees, this newspaper set out to examine, not just the flawed evidence of the Home Office’s own claims that the land-locked African nation is a safe haven, but to what degree it protects the safety of journalists that Britain’s Home Secretary held so dear.
AOAV had aimed to uncover how the Rwandan Government’s approach to the Fourth Estate might impact the future capacity of journalists to investigate the treatment of refugees sent there from Britain.
Rwanda: A Stifled Press
It was clear, from the start, that there were concerns.
Rwanda ranks 136 out of 180 on the Reports Without Borders (RSF) 2022 edition World Press Freedom Index. This is worse than the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Israel, Mali and South Sudan: five of the 31 countries listed in 2021 as ‘Human Rights Concern’ by the UK Government.
RSF said of the country’s press: “Investigative journalism is not widely practised, and journalists who have tried to circulate sensitive or critical content via YouTube or other online outlets in recent years have received harsh (prison) sentences.”
Journalists in Rwanda have themselves been criminalised. “Arbitrary arrests and detention have increased in recent years,” RSF said. “Journalists working online are also being persecuted.” Two journalists are currently in prison in Rwanda.
Writers and editors are also under fire. Innocent Bahati, a popular Rwandan poet, has been missing since last February, according to PEN International. His disappearance is thought to be linked to his poetry condemning the Government’s inaction on poverty and corruption.
Human Rights Watch, in its 2022 report, stated that “Christopher Kayumba, the former editor of The Chronicles newspaper, established a new political party, the Rwandese Platform for Democracy (RDP), in March… Shortly afterwards, allegations of rape and “sexual misconduct” were brought against him, and he was arrested in September (2021)”.
Rwanda has also been accused of not meeting international standards of free speech, with Human Rights Watch warning in March of a wave of arrests of Rwandan journalists and commentators.
Lewis Mudge, the NGO’s Central Africa director, told reporters that “judicial authorities in Rwanda, lacking the independence to stand up and protect free speech in accordance with international law, have unjustly convicted and jailed people based on their protected speech and opinions”.
Such concerns were reflected in the European Parliament’s decision to adopt two resolutions in February and October 2021, condemning Rwanda’s broader human rights record. Despite this, the British Home Office is adamant that the nation is “safe and secure”.
Just how safe and secure, though, is not easy to establish when journalists are under threat.
How Can Foreign Correspondents Find Out?
I am one of many human rights reporters who has been refused access to report in Rwanda.
In June, Benedict Moran, a Canadian journalist who has covered Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s alleged involvement in war crimes, was denied a journalist visa. Anjan Sundaram, author of Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship – a book about the destruction of free speech in Rwanda – was also refused one. Sundaram’s book lists 60 journalists physically assaulted, arrested, killed or forced to flee after criticising Rwanda’s Government between 1995 and 2014. In the same month, Vinícius Assis, a Brazilian journalist, paid US$100 for media accreditation and spent one month in Kigali but was not given accreditation.
In April, it was reported that journalists from the Guardian, Financial Times and Mirror were ‘excluded’ from Patel’s trip to Rwanda at the time. This included the Guardian’s home affairs editor, Rajeev Syal, who did later accompany Boris Johnson to Kigali for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
When access is given, there appears to be limitations on what can be reported. Last month, Guardian journalist Sarah Johnson described how on her accredited trip to cover the plight of refugees in Rwanda she was “not allowed to talk to any refugees, or take any photos of refugees”. She was also told she could be arrested for entering a medical appointment or someone’s home, and permission from the camp manager for her to speak to refugees was denied.
Domestic Journalists Silenced
There appears to be a persistent attempt to suppress domestic voices in Rwanda.
In June, the Rwandan journalist Prudence Nsengumukiza was to be given asylum in Belgium, telling BBC News that he was at risk of being “hunted down by agents of President Paul Kagame’s Government”. A Rwandan news-site with reported links to the Rwandan Government accused him of “cowardice”, warning “nobody betrays Rwanda and gets lucky”.
In November 2020, Rwandan YouTuber Dieudonne Niyonsenga, was sentenced to seven years in jail after being found guilty of forgery and impersonation. A few weeks before, fellow-national Yvonne Idamange was jailed for 15 years for “inciting violence” online. YouTuber John Williams Ntwali has also been arrested multiple times during his two-decade career as a journalist there.
The censure appears to spread beyond borders. Congolese journalist Dimanche Kamate was arrested and detained last month over his broadcast about a recently leaked United Nations report that alleged Rwanda’s military support for M23, a rebel group fighting the Congolese Government.
Websites have also been set up by Rwandan exiles cataloguing the abuses against journalists in the landlocked country. Verifying these claims, however, without access to the country where they were reportedly perpetrated, is fraught with difficulties.
Human Rights Reporters And Lawyers
The attempt to prevent fair and balanced review of potential abuses goes beyond just journalism. According to Human Rights Watch, “Rwandan law allows for overly broad and vague limitations on free speech” which pave the way for the “abusive prosecution” of Government critics.
Unsurprisingly, over the years human rights researchers have fallen victim to the heavy-handed policy. Carina Tertsakian, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher in Rwanda, was told in 2010 by immigration officials that she would not be granted a work visa, stifling the ability of rights organisations to monitor the country.
The lawyers of Paul Rusesabagina, the man depicted as a hero in Hotel Rwanda a 2004 film about Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, said they had been stopped from seeing their client, who lives under detention in the central African country. Rusesabagina was arrested in August 2020 and charged with terrorism. He was sentenced to 25 years after what rights groups branded an unfair trial.
Dissent in Rwanda, it seems, is simply not tolerated.
And sometimes that intolerance becomes deadly. In 2014, it was reported that Col Patrick Karegeya, a former Rwandan intelligence chief, had been murdered. Karegeya had been advising South African and Tanzanian intelligence as they prepared to send troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo and battle the Rwandan-backed rebel group M23. BBC Newsnight reported how “his friends and family are in no doubt that he was murdered on the orders of the Rwandan President”.
The unreported attempts of the Kagame regime to silence critics and opponents could be far, far higher. But any potential human rights abuses – like the 13 refugees killed in 2018 by Rwandan police forces – can never be truly told because of the draconian approach to journalists and the threat to their safety.
A threat that the Home Secretary has been so vocal in condemning elsewhere, but not in the very country she wants to send refugees to.
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