By Tom Rhodes,
Rwandan President Paul Kagame toured America late last month and a number of articles in the American press have sung praises to his leadership. Undoubtedly, the economic recovery under Kagame since the 1994 genocide is remarkable, but his repressive record on press freedom tarnishes this record.
A Wall Street Journal op-ed by Anne Jolis praised Kagame for his free market thinking while the Associated Press reported on Kagame's presence at the premier of a Tribeca film, "Earth Made of Glass." The film portrayed Kagame in a heroic light, AP reported, and was inspired by a chance dinner conversation the director, Deborah Scranton, had with Kagame two years ago.
The greatest praise and defense of Kagame's leadership stemmed from this week's piece written by Michael Fairbanks on HuffPost. Fairbanks applauds Kagame for his efforts to develop the economy, education, and foreign relations in Rwanda and claims critics of his press freedom record within the international community are myopic, even racist. The premise has merit -- the international community must end its arrogance and listen to Rwandans more instead of pushing their own rash solutions. But all these authors seem to listen to only one Rwandan -- Paul Kagame.
Fairbanks questions why a CNN interview with Kagame, for instance, focused too much on "a minor opposition candidate" Victoire Ingabire. Ingabrire, a Hutu opposition party candidate for the upcoming August elections, was detained April 21 and questioned in court over alleged "evidence of wire transfers showing that Ingabire sent thousands of dollars" to a ruthless Hutu paramilitary group. But Fairbanks failed to mention that she was released on bail the following day since the state prosecutor could not provide sufficient evidence to prove the allegations.
Press freedom organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) are admonished by Fairbanks for defending two local-language "so-called opposition newspapers," Umuseso and Umuvugizi, which were recently suspended. Umuseso and Umuvugizi constitute the only critical local media voices left in the country, and both are now conveniently banned prior to the presidential elections. He goes on to contrast these suspensions with a myriad of international media organizations allowed to operate in the country. While many international media houses do visit Kigali, the one with local-language programming and regular local coverage, BBC, is often intimidated and has been suspended in the past.
Where Fairbanks strategically omits information, at other times it appears his facts are plain wrong. A famous Rwandan general once aligned with Kagame reportedly fled this year fearing arrest after he was accused by the government of terrorism. A few independent journalists went into hiding after Kagame announced at a press conference that he was aware of some journalists interviewing the allegedly dissident general. But Fairbanks spoke to a "senior military official" and claims the general actually fled the country because he was caught cheating on his wife, not for any political reason. The international press was fooled, Fairbanks says, into portraying a womanizer as a valiant opponent to oppression. But perhaps Fairbanks should listen to more Rwandans than one military elite -- the general accused of infidelity is currently in a Rwandan jail and never fled as claimed.
No doubt blanket criticism of the Kagame is unjustified, but so is blanket sycophancy. As it currently stands, Kagame will run in the August presidential elections with only one opposition party "allowed" to register and no independent local media to cover them. Thanks to the likes of Fairbanks, western donors will praise Kagame for holding the elections and the foreign aid will continue to flow, whether the people of Rwanda approve or not.