The press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is bound to cause a stir among Rwanda-watchers. The Paris-based group called Rwanda among the 10 worst violators of press freedom in the world, right along with North Korea, Burma and Iran. It’s also the third-worst in Africa; only Eritrea, where there basically aren’t any journalists who aren’t in jail, and Sudan are worse. Even Somalia ranks better than Rwanda.
I’m not sold. Here’s why.
Let’s get the genre objections out of the way first. I’m not a big believer in indices. They usually feel more like media gimmicks than analytical tools to me. But everybody loves lists – and sometimes, people like to be on them. Show me a list with an air-tight methodology, and I’ll call you a liar. (The RSF methodology seems to me pretty wanting, but if you’re the same kind of nerd as I am, you’ll check out their questionnaire, scoring sheet, and sparse methodological explanation and decide for yourself if you’re satisfied.)
But let’s talk specifics.
RSF alleges that in Rwanda, "journalists are fleeing the country because of the repression, in an exodus almost on the scale of Somalia's.” I’m no naïf, but this is laughable. Journalists fleeing Somalia are fleeing very real, dangerous and ongoing violence. Also, by the by, what’s going on in the media space for journalists who stay in Somalia? “The two leading Islamist militias, Al-Shabaab and Hizb-Al-Islam, are gradually seizing control of independent radio stations and using them to broadcast their religious and political propaganda.” That is to say, a ongoing and overt seizure by a fundamentalist religious government of all media space in order to push propaganda. Remember when they also banned music on the radio in Mogadishu? Yeah, me too.
Whatever you think of Kagame, Kigali is no Mogadishu. Even exiled journalists who don’t like the current government concede that 40 percent of the media here is privately owned. What RSF’s press materials don’t talk about – and what its methodology does not convince me it has any idea how to measure (even though it claims to account for this) – is self-censorship. But because the variable is far from robust (which is really too bad), I’m going to ignore it.
RSF points out that the deputy editor of an independent paper was killed here before the elections. That’s true, and awful. But in Russia, it’s a public health hazard to be a journalist: The country has a long-proven pattern of killing journalists who dare to investigate things its elite doesn’t want anyone to know – 313 of them between 1993 and 2009, according to the International Federation of Journalists. (For more on the anti-perks of being a journalist in Russia, check out this piece.)
Meanwhile, Rwanda’s neighbor to the south, Burundi, looks a lot nastier for journalists (though not exclusively for journalists). Jean Claude Kavumbagu was tossed in jail for treason in July after he dared to report that Bujumbura wasn’t to defend itself against an attack by Somalia’s music-hating, journalist-repelling Al Shabaab. He’s still there; his pre-trial detention has been extended indefinitely, and no date for a trial set. Chances are the authorities in Burundi, a country known for torture, are not being that nice to him, either.
It's not just Kavumbagu they don't like either. Two journalists at the popular independent radio station Radio Africa Publique receive death threats and others are held by the government's shady intelligence services.
Yes, Rwanda banned two “opposition” (a word that has come here to mean not-run-by-Kagame’s-dudes) newspapers before this year’s presidential election. Yes, during a presidential election there was more media scrutiny and more pressure. Also, the pope is still Catholic.
I’m not saying it’s easy to be a journalist in Rwanda. I’m saying I don’t trust the RSF index, for all the reasons above – and for one more. It’s easy, and tempting, to make the media a main proxy character in the anti-Rwanda story that caught so much international attention this summer, leading up to the election. It’s hard to be a journalist here, sure. But it doesn’t do anyone any favors – and least of all the journalists living and working here – to blow the situation out of proportion. So let’s not confuse press freedom for political freedom, and let’s not try to lance the latter by invoking the former. After all, journalists have to work hard enough around the world not to be political tools as it is.