This week marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwanda genocide, which killed nearly one-in-seven people in the small African nation. Today, there is continuing debate about the role of the news media in the calamity – from the role local broadcasters and newspapers played in fuelling ethnic hatred, to concerns that the shallowness of international coverage in the early days contributed to the lethargic international response.

IPI draws on the experience of several journalists to reflect on the media coverage of the Rwanda genocide – and its impact today on press freedom in Rwanda. These commentaries also serve to help encourage discussion at the forthcoming IPI World Congress in South Africa, 12-15 April 2014.

Twenty years of political changes have done little to revive this land-locked nation’s comatose press bludgeoned by a long history of violence.

Rwanda experienced Africa’s worst genocide in modern times and when it tried to rise from the ashes, its recovery was marred by local politics and intervention in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Beset by ethnic tensions between the dominant Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority, Rwanda has hardly seen peace since 1959 when 200,000 Tutsis fled to neighbouring Burundi sparking off resentment that led to periodic massacres of the tribe.

The most notorious began on the evening of April 6, 1994, following the shooting down of the plane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira as the presidential aircraft prepared to land in Kigali. This was the catalyst for the Rwandan genocide. In the ensuing weeks, some 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus were killed and another 2 million Hutus fled to the then-Zaire (now the DRC), including some of those who were responsible for the massacres.

In the midst of this, some sections of the media from one clan instigated murders of the members of the rival tribe.

Radio, the main source of news in Rwanda, was used a tool to generate hatred. The notorious hate station was Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) which spawned poisonous anti-Tutsi propaganda.

President Paul Kagame came to power in 2000 after the resignation of the Hutu President Pasteur Bizimungu, ushering in an era of peace and stability. The press has also been subjected to changes, albeit controversial and some parts of the legislation unpalatable to defenders of press freedom.

The media law, drafted in 2012 and adopted in March 2013, was forced through amidst controversy and serious dissatisfaction from press freedom watchdogs.

The law was criticised for being “draconian” and failing to safeguard press freedom. It also failed to fully comply with international standards on the right to freedom of expression.

Critics say that the state has couched the law in such terms that it basically retains control over the media and will not hesitate to silence those who fail to toe the official line.

Among disconcerting issues are the vague powers of the minister in charge of Information and Communication (ICT) in determining media outlets; protecting the confidentiality of the journalists’ sources; and the licensing of print and broadcast media by the Media High Council (MHC), a government-controlled body.

Currently Rwanda has 32 weekly newspapers and magazines and 27 electronic media outlets, officially approved by MHC. These are largely pro-government outlets.

The broadcast media include private commercial, religious, community state-owned and international radio stations broadcasting to Rwanda on FM and one state TV station.

There are restrictions on Rwandan journalists applying to become foreign correspondents unless approved by the MHC.

Anjan Sundaram, author of the acclaimed book, Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo and a US foreign correspondent based in Rwanda, observes that the press in Rwanda is extremely restrained at this time.

Recent reforms to allow journalists to “self-regulate” unfortunately came too late, after most independent voices in the country had been silenced.

“Journalists have been killed, imprisoned and forced into exile. In Rwanda now the press, and the population, largely repeat and reinforce government policy,” he said.

The ethnic tensions of 1994 are still present. People are afraid to speak openly about the ethnic issues at the heart of the genocide, as they fear such talk will lead to punishment: the government has passed legislation on “divisionism”, for example, that is used broadly to silence critics.

Society has not been able to freely discuss the genocide of 1994 and come to terms with it, and the perception of many Rwandans is that ethnicity dominates government policies and ideology, even if it is not openly stated.

But looking at the other side of the coin, many Rwandan journalists and publishers have reluctantly accepted the tough working conditions and enforced government controls.

Educationist and media expert Christopher Kayumba, editor of the recently launched The Chronicles, is less worried about the new press laws and more about the growing competition among the existing newspapers chasing the limited advertisement revenue. Speaking on the advent of the draft new media law, he says, “One of the reasons we started the newspaper at this time is because we believe there is an increasing political will to open up the political space for newspapers properly.”

Speaking to Graham Holliday, the then-Rwanda correspondent of Reuters, when changes were being made in the new draft law, Kayumba said, “certain clauses that are not good for a free media are being removed, including the powers of the Media High Council to be able to close down newspapers. One of the reasons we are beginning at this time is because the changes, the reform that is taking place is positive, is good for the private press to grow.”

Kayumba was unruffled about going through the MHC to register his newspaper because “all the people involved [in The Chronicles] had all the requirements. It wasn’t a problem registering under these laws. [Our] people have the right qualifications in journalism”.

There is no doubt that despite his enthusiasm, Kayumba and his team have to work within the constraints laid by the 2013 press laws in carrying out their duties in producing a weekly that would report all points of view, publish investigative stories, and analyse news and political events.

Kayumba, however, draws the line that his newspaper “would not be interested in promoting this political ideology or the other”.

Observers, though, are agreed that only those newspapers and broadcasters who support President Kagame’s government have room for survival in this market.

In purely practical terms the privately owned media generates about 90 percent of advertising revenue from the public sector. Survival is the name of the game and many publishers are more willing to accept advertising francs from the government rather than annoying the regime.

Christopher Kayumba concedes that newspapers can never really be fully independent in Rwanda because they rely on a small number of advertisers – the government being the one with the cheque books.

A veteran international author and journalist, Shamlal Puri is the London correspondent of The Standard (Kenya) and an editor of The International Indian magazine. His commentary on Rwanda, “Western Leaders are Guilty”, appeared in the September 1994 edition of the IPI Report.