Taking Sides in Rwanda – By Steve Terrill
We are pretty familiar with Rwanda: It is paradise….or it’s a prison. President Paul Kagame is a savior and a visionary…or Kagame is a tyrant and a war criminal. What you hear varies widely depending on whom you ask. Why is the Rwanda conversation so polarized?
As the year of the 20th Anniversary of the Rwanda genocide approached, many journalists and observers–both in and outside Rwanda–remarked that no outlet existed for unbiased news on the country. Last year I tried to create an online newswire for unbiased reporting on post-genocide Rwanda. Though I had been impressed with Rwanda’s leadership and have long been considered a pro-government, even pro-Kagame journalist, I was aware that more balance was needed. Growing discontent with the status quo required a space for multiple points of view.
Too Close for Comfort
I’ve run into plenty of roadblocks while writing about Rwanda. But perhaps because I was viewed as sympathetic to the government, I found officials to be somewhat cooperative. Government communications staffers often contacted me wanting to be sure I had what they saw as the complete picture on big stories. We had a friendly, if sometimes tense, relationship. When I tried to become more nuanced, there was noticeable pushback, but it was not completely rejected. In fact, my contact at the government communications office told me to contact him directly if anyone in Rwanda ever tried to interfere with my work.
As I began aggregating Rwanda news, I noticed some strange online trends. It seemed that anonymous websites and social media accounts were dominating the Rwanda conversation. I kept watching.
After the murder of Rwanda’s former spy chief in South Africa in January, I accidentally uncovered a program of online harassment of journalists, human rights workers and diplomats. The program was being run from inside the Office of the President of Rwanda. This was quite a story. I doubted I could report on it without having problems in Rwanda. Instead, I wrote directly to the president’s office. I told them what I was seeing and suggested they shut down this program before it became a larger story. They declined that suggestion.
Then in March, one of the harassing accounts tweeted to me directly from the official account of President Paul Kagame. That tweet was quickly deleted, but not before the secret was out and, ironically, many had the misimpression that I was the one who had exposed it. When the Washington Post and BBC picked up the story they contacted me for comments and I obliged. After that, I assumed– even hoped–the story would fade. The 20th Anniversary of the Genocide was approaching. I was to cover the commemorations for multiple outlets (including Al Jazeera Digital Magazine). No story was more deserving of undivided media attention. But that was not to be.
When I arrived to cover the commemorations, I was blocked from entering Rwanda. Despite a holding a valid passport with a visa waiver, I was told I would have to return to the United States. When I phoned my contact in the Rwanda Government’s Communications Office, he hung-up on me. I then tweeted that I was being denied entry to Rwanda and called the US Embassy in Kigali. The American consular asked me to call him back after five minutes. As I waited to make that call from the gate in the Kigali airport, a strange tweet came from the official account of the Rwanda Immigration Service. It said I was being blocked because of a drug arrest two years earlier in the US. The tweet linked to an outdated news report.
I had in fact been arrested two years earlier in the United States on drug charges. Prosecutors later said they had been mistaken and the original charges were dismissed. However, I did admit to having possessed drugs for personal use at one-point years ago. This was a misdemeanor. Despite misleading news reports, complete details of the case remain sealed. I hope one day soon I have all the facts and will be able to publish them.
Shortly after immigration sent that tweet, I was surrounded by police, handcuffed and placed in a jail cell. My phone was taken. Someone didn’t want me tweeting or calling the embassy until I had left Rwanda. When I told the plain clothed officer who stood outside my cell that I was worried it might not be great PR for Rwanda to lock up a visiting journalist, he smirked and replied, “So what.”
At no time did the Government of Rwanda ask to see a copy of my official arrest record. Instead, they used Google news search, found an old, inaccurate news article from another country and tweeted a link to it. It was a quick way to justify preventing the entry of a journalist they saw as critical. The incident attracted international attention and became sad distraction from the real story: Rwanda’s remarkable renaissance and the complex challenges the country continues to face.
I received hundreds of emails in the hours after I was being blocked from entering Rwanda. Suddenly, opposition people–who had never before trusted me–saw me as their friend, even referring to me as their “ambassador”. Meanwhile, pro-government Rwandan friends and colleagues saw me as a pariah (and they told me as much). I had tried to stand in the middle, to be neutral and objective journalist, but I was pushed to one side.
The tweet by immigration was never explained. Despite repeated requests, Rwanda immigration officials have not explained any of the actions around my deportation. Mine is just one of many cases where it is determined that, even a person who admires the Rwandan government, is not quite friendly enough. Rwanda blocks countless journalists, researchers and even officials if they perceive them to be critical. They rarely take issue with anything specific. Instead, propaganda blogs work to cast doubt on people the government views as hostile. The idea is to create an impression of unreliability and control the way journalists are perceived. These attacks are more effective than challenging what is being said. They have a chilling affect on people working in Rwanda. Controlling the perceived character of critics, and of the government itself, requires enormous resources. Impression management is an obsession in Kigali.
Between Two Extremes
Conflicting narratives tower over Rwanda. No middle path exists through the land of a thousand hills. Moderates searching for a center find little room between political extremes. The country appears peaceful and prosperous; no battles rock the hills; there is no blood in the streets. Yet the subject of Rwanda remains a hotbed of controversy. Vitriol comes from all sides.
When journalists write positive articles about President Paul Kagame, small armies of detractors accuse them of being naí¯ve or corrupt. When researchers publish criticism of the current Rwandan Government, they are denounced by legions of pro-government supporters who accuse them of bias, racism and even genocidal tendencies. It is hard to talk honestly about Rwanda without getting kicked out of the discussion.
Foreigners are pushed into these strict pro-government and opposition categories. For many, the Hutu-power movement of the early 90’s was so evil, choosing a stance which seems to confront bigotry is an obvious choice. For others, hearing accounts of the brutality of the Tutsi led Rwandan Patriotic Front against unarmed Hutu civilians–before and after the genocide””necessitates opposition to the RPF, regardless of its other accomplishments.
It often comes down to first impressions. If one begins by meeting Tutsi survivors of the genocide in Kigali, they tend to support the RPF. If one starts by meeting survivors of RPF carnage in Eastern Congo, they tend to be more sympathetic to Hutu refugees. But nearly all who look long enough see that every group involved has the blood of countless innocent victims on its hands. Stark first impressions are powerful but for honest observers a more complex reality emerges. Pointing this out means being accused of promoting “˜double-genocide’ theories, “˜negation’ or “˜false equivalency’. But recognizing one tragedy does not trivialize another. In fact nothing trivializes genocide more than using the memory of victims as a tool to suppress discussion of other atrocities.
The idea that one group is inherently good while the other is inherently evil doesn’t hold up either. It holds all the groups back. Loyalty to the first set of victims we meet fades when we are presented with another set.
So why can’t we talk about this with the candor it deserves?
There is no ethical middle ground on the subject of genocide. It is the ultimate crime and can never be justified. But there is a need for open dialogue on questions of development, democracy and how a post-conflict society moves forward. Extremists on all sides of the Rwanda discussion try to force neutral observers into categories. For some, any praise of Paul Kagame is delusional. For others, to accommodate a balanced view is to harbor genocidal ideology. This prevents scholars, journalists and ordinary people from understanding reality. Instead we are locked into repeating habitual, scripted reportage.
We are left with a bipolar conversation. I and other reporters are guilty of perpetuating this. The first thing we do when talking to someone about Rwanda is try to figure out which side they are on. Then we know what we’re dealing with. No one is served by this false dichotomy. We need to be allowed to be neutral or we waste our time and the time of our readers. No criticism or praise can be credible without objectivity.
No leader, no matter how competent or benevolent, is worthy of being followed or supported blindly without being held accountable. No institution can succeed in the long-term without the benefit of listening to those who disagree with it. History has shown it never works.
Steve Terrill is an independent journalist and editor of Rwanda Wire. This article is republished from Al Jazeera Digital magazine.