Journalism at War: The Case of IGIHE in Defaming the Banyamulenge Community
Mass media carry an enormous weight when it comes to influencing society, especially in a negative way, and of course, possibly with a hidden agenda. Journalists, for example, particularly those working closely or have a close relationship with their governments, enjoy their freedom of speech and expression to the point of abusing such a valuable right. An example of such an abuse of freedom of expression occurred during the 1994 genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda, when Radio Television Libre de Milles Collines (RTLM) instigated the killings of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis throughout the country. The RTLM station was created in July 1993 (Swart, 2020) when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)-Inkotanyi was at war with the then Rwandan government of President Juvenal Habyarimana. On December 11, 1997, the extremist radio called “Voice of the Patriot” of the Union of Forces for Liberation and Democracy broadcast anti-Tutsi messages and encouraged the local population of eastern Congo to kill all Tutsis or those who were not “true” Congolese. The radio claimed it represented the Bantu people. Its transmissions included Banyamulenge and claimed the Banyamulenge tribe did not exist in Congo (Minorities at Risk Project, 2004).
Defamation and Libel Definitions
According to Merriam-Webster, defamation is defined as “the act of communicating false statements about a person that injure the reputation of that person.” Institute for War & Peace Reporting defines libel as “the publication of an untruth about another which will do harm to that person or his/her reputation, by bringing into ridicule, hatred, scorn or contempt of that person” (Institute for War and Peace Reporting, 2013, p. 35).
IGIHE’s Defamatory Acts Towards the Banyamulenge Community
IGIHE is one of the online news sites in Rwanda. It was founded by Meilleur Murindabigwi in July 2009 (Boisselet, 2012). Reporting to Jeune Afrique in 2012, Mr. Murindabigwi stated that he created the site after he realized Rwanda had a negative image, especially from websites operating in foreign countries by the Rwandan opposition. Unfortunately, IGIHE has become the source of negative image and reputation of others to the point of getting them in serious trouble of being exterminated.
On September 1, 2020, IGIHE published a news article, “Alpha Condé agiye kwiyamamariza manda ya gatatu, miliyoni 6 banduye COVID-19 muri USA…amakuru yo hanze y’u Rwanda.” This title translates to “Alpha Condé will seek a third reelection, 6 million have COVID-19 in the USA…news from outside of Rwanda.” This article was written by Iradukunda Serge in Kinyarwanda. The article was swiftly edited by taking out an entire section after the site managers were stormed by messages from all over the world. The contents of the article were heavily condemned.
The section was about the Banyamulenge community, a minority ethnic group in South Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo. The title of the deleted section was, “RDC: inyeshyamba zafashe ku ngufu abanyeshuri biteguraga ibizamini,” which means, “Militias have sexually assaulted students who were getting ready for exams in Congo.” The story was about an incident that took place in the Haut-Uele province, northeastern Congo, at the border with South Sudan. Mr. Iradukunda stated in the third paragraph that the incident occurred during the night of August 30 when militias attacked the school in the city of Isiro and sexually assaulted a few girls they found there. In the fourth paragraph, the journalist indicated that one of the residents had reported to the Agence France Presse (AFP) that the militias who conducted this attack were Banyamulenge militias. Unfortunately, Mr. Iradukunda failed to provide the original source.
After conducting a research on the above incident, an article which contains similar information Mr. Iradukunda referred to in his article was located. The article “DR Congo Attackers Disrupt School Final Exams, Rape Students” by Barron’s, an American magazine, contains a mixture of information from different parts of the Congo, including South Kivu and Haut-Uele provinces. Barron’s indicates that the article was produced by the AFP. While the rape of students happened in Isiro, the main city of Haut-Uele, the Barron’s article states that in Mikenge, South Kivu, final exams were disrupted by an attack. Apparently, the article’s third and fourth paragraphs mix both incidents, which creates confusion. The third paragraph reads, “In Sud-Kivu province, about 700 students and their teachers fled after fighting near an exam centre in Haut Uele, near the border with South Sudan, Nyange Saluba, an official with a civil society said” (Barron’s, 2020, para. 3). Then what becomes even more confusing follows in the fourth paragraph, “Saluba said the attack was staged by the Banyamulenge militia -- a group of Congolese Tutsis that has been waging war for several months” (para. 4). Other newspapers, including a French newspaper, Le Figaro, published the same mixture of information of the two incidents from different locations.
How Far Is Haut-Uele From South Kivu?
Haut-Uele province shares the border with South Sudan, that is northeastern Congo. South Kivu province, on the other hand, specifically in the highlands of Uvira, Fizi, and Mwenga territories, also known as Hauts-Plateaux of Itombwe, where the majority of Banyamulenge live, is located east of the country, directly west of Burundi. Two provinces, North Kivu and Ituri, separate Haut-Uele and South Kivu. Using Google Maps, the distance between the Hauts-Plateaux of Itombwe and Isiro, the main city of Haut-Uele, is around 500 miles (around 800 kilometers). There are neither Banyamulenge militia nor civilians in Haut-Uele province. Those who were referred to as Banyamulenge militias are locally known as Twirwaneho, meaning, “Let us defend ourselves.” They are a self-defense group that has been defending their people and property in the Hauts-Plateaux of Itombwe, not in Isiro. Continuous acts of genocide have been committed against the Banyamulenge community since early 2017. Hundreds of Banyamulenge civilians have been killed, hundreds of their villages have been burned to the ground, and over 130,000 of their cattle have been looted by Mai Mai militias in coalition with some members of the Congolese army and Burundian armed groups, such as Red-Taraba led by Alexis Sinduhije, FOREBU led by Godefroid Niyombare, and FNL led by Aloys Nzabampema.
Where Does IGIHE’s Defamation Come From?
Why blaming IGIHE for defaming the Banyamulenge community? Why not blame the international newspapers where the confusing information originated? Well, after reading what is believed to be the main source of IGIHE’s article, one cannot tell why the second part of this article’s title is “The Case of Igihe in Defaming the Banyamulenge Community.” Was IGIHE’s incident on September 1st a blind mistake?
On January 9, 2020, IGIHE published an article with a title, “Colonel wa FARDC yatorotse ajya kuyobora umutwe ukorana na P5 ya Kayumba Nyamwasa.” The title translates to, “A colonel of the Congolese army deserted in the pursuit of leading an armed group that collaborates with P5 of Kayumba Nyamwasa.” In this news article, IGIHE claimed that Colonel Michel Rukunda also known as Makanika defected the regular army to the armed group, Gumino, operating in the Hauts-Plateaux of Itombwe. IGIHE also reported that Colonel Makanika’s defection was a result of Colonel Semahurungure’s death, one of the top commanders of Gumino. Colonel Makanika later denied IGIHE’s claim on BBC. It should be noted that when Colonel Makanika deserted the army, he announced that his intention was to defend his people, the Banyamulenge community, who were being killed by local armed groups in collaboration with some members of the Congolese army in the area. His arrival in the area was a huge relief for his community and armed groups were tremendously discouraged from attacking Banyamulenge civilians. Currently, as he has reported to numerous radio stations, he is part of the Twirwaneho group previously mentioned. IGIHE’s statement on Colonel Makanika was highly condemned by the majority of the Banyamulenge community throughout the world. It should be noted that prior to Colonel Makanika’s defection, IGIHE remained silent while Banyamulenge civilians were being slaughtered for nearly three years. Why being concerned about a colonel who deserted an army in a foreign country in order to stop a genocide against his own people?
On January 22, 2020, IGIHE published another defamatory article that was a subject to another controversy among members of the Banyamulenge community. IGIHE reported that Colonel Aaron Nyamushebwa, a member of the Banyamulenge community, deserted the Congolese army and joined Colonel Makanika. Arthur Musangwa wrote the article, which was shortly altered from top to bottom. Both the title and the contents of the article were completely changed after Colonel Nyamushebwa was interviewed by journalist Salus of the then Imurenge.com. Colonel Nyamushebwa was interviewed from Kongo Central province, formerly Bas Congo, over 1,000 miles or nearly 1,700 kilometers from where Colonel Makanika was located. One thing to note about Colonel Nyamushebwa is that he is one of hundreds of Banyamulenge youths who received a military training in Uganda and fought the RPF war that stopped the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda by ousting President Habyarimana.
While the international news sources mentioned above (Barron’s, Le Figaro, and AFP) created the confusing story of the raping of students in Isiro, IGIHE staff members should have enough geographical knowledge as it pertains to Congo because it is a news agency headquartered in the Great Lakes region of Africa. Although all journalists are reliable and accountable for what they publish, an independent reader or analyst can see the reason why IGIHE is being blamed, especially when considering previous incidents.
The Response of the CEO of IGIHE
When journalist Iradukunda Serge published the defamatory article about the rape incident, IGIHE CEO Meilleur Murindabigwi was stormed by WhatsApp messages from different corners of the world, according to individuals who reported they were among the messages senders. Members of the Banyamulenge community around the world were frustrated by the article and wanted to address the issue to the CEO himself. For example, one text allegedly sent to Mr. Murindabigwi translates as follows, “The news article you have published about Banyamulenge militias raping students is an act of defamation and provocation. In addition, the Banyamulenge community has no militias, but a self-defense group. Thirdly, there are no Banyamulenge civilians in Haut-Uele. That is a pure lie. You should know that whenever you lie about Banyamulenge, you automatically put them in danger. If in Rwanda over a million of Tutsis were killed, that should have been a lesson for Rwandan news media in the pursuit of preventing genocide elsewhere. But according to this news article, it seems like you are creating a turmoil between Banyamulenge and their neighbors.” Another text reads, “When the time comes for God to do justice for all, you should be liable. Whatever you are doing, you are putting us in danger, which is what RTLM did.”
A reply supposedly from Mr. Murindabigwi translates, “Your frustration makes sense, but at the same time you should not blame us. I need contacts of your leaders, whether in Congo or overseas. If we were in contact with them [Banyamulenge leaders], they would give us swift and accurate information. We surely are not against you. You are our brothers and sisters. Let us work together to obtain reliable information from Banyamulenge leaders, if they exist, and this will solve lots of problems.” The phrase “if they exist” was not well received by many members of the Banyamuelenge community, according to messages on several WhatsApp groups. It should be noted that one of the screenshots shows “CEO Meilleur Igihe” on the top, while the other shows “Igihe com Rwa…”
The Danger of IGIHE’s Defamatory Publications on Banyamulenge
What is the danger associated with IGIHE’s defamation? As briefly mentioned in the introduction, RTLM is an example of the danger of defamatory publications in journalism. RTLM was hugely condemned for creating ridicule, hatred, scorn, and contempt towards Tutsis in Rwanda, which resulted in the killings of over a million of them. Should IGIHE learn from this tragic event in history? The Banyamulenge community has always been a subject to an ethnic discrimination by some members of the Congolese government and army as well as their neighbors, particularly Babembe, Bafuliru, and Banyindu. Publishing defamatory information would put the entire community in a serious danger of being massively and arbitrarily executed. Reporting, for instance, that members of such a community are deserting the regular army would be a good or bad reason to kill all soldiers from the Banyamulenge community throughout the country, not to mention the creation of more hatred among the Congolese population.
The Code of Ethics in Journalism
Society of Professional Journalists (2014) provides four fundamental principles of ethical journalism. The principles are: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent. The first point under the first principle reads, “Journalists should take responsibility for their work. Verify information before releasing it. Use original sources whenever possible.” The second point states, “Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.” In other words, rushing to report a news article can be detrimental for journalists and readers. There’s no excuse.
Laws on Defamation and Libel in Rwanda
Article 288 of the Rwandan Penal Code of 2013 “criminalizes malicious and public acts made by a person to adversely affect the dignity of another person or to cause such a person public contempt” (Institute for War & Peace Reporting, 2013, p. 35). An offense under this article is punishable by an imprisonment term of six (6) months to one (1) year and a fine of one million (1,000,000) to five million (5,000,000) Rwandan francs, or one of the two. Institute for War & Peace Reporting (2013) also states that libel is the same as the publication of defamatory information. The Institute says that the Rwandan Penal Code of 2013 does not contain the offense of libel. However, “The offense of defamation which is discussed above may be relied upon to prosecute persons (especially) journalists who publish defamatory information” (p. 35).
The three incidents of defamatory publications by IGIHE towards the Banyamulenge community so far in 2020 shed light on a possibly hidden agenda. The first publication was published by IGIHE itself as a news agency. The following two articles were published by two journalists, Arthur Musangwa and Iradukunda Serge, respectively. It is a concerning matter, whether in times of war or peace, to damage the reputation of a minority ethnic group that has been discriminated against for more than a half century. RTLM and “Voice of the Patriot” stations are two examples of the consequences of planting hatred in the hearts of one side of the population to exterminate the other.
IGIHE as a news agency is recommended to follow the ethics of ethical journalism. IGIHE should be reminded that there are laws available for law breakers. Laws serve the purpose of protecting everyone without exception. IGIHE should also be reminded of the consequences of creating or instigating hatred in people’s hearts. It should be reminded of RTLM and other extremist mass media. It should finally be reminded to be part of protectors, rather than killers; peacekeepers, rather than those who always strive to aggravate existing problems.
Barron’s. (2020, August 31). DR Congo attackers disrupt school final exams, rape students. Barron’s. https://www.barrons.com/news/dr-congo-attackers-disrupt-school-final-exams-rape-students-01598898007?tesla=y
Boisselet, P. (2012, July 2). Rwanda: “Ighe.com” lance un hebdomadaire. Jeune Afrique. https://www.jeuneafrique.com/140896/societe/rwanda-igihe-com-lance-un-hebdomadaire/
Institute for War & Peace Reporting. (2013). Media laws: Training curriculum [PDF file]. Retrieved from https://iwpr.net/sites/default/files/download/publication/rwanda_media_laws_final_print_web.pdf
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Defamation. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved 09/04/2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/defamation
Minorities at Risk Project. (2004). Chronology for Tutsis in the Dem. Rep. of the Congo. https://www.refworld.org/docid/469f388115.html
Society of Professional Journalists. (2014). SPJ code of ethics. https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp
Swart, M. (2020, June 7). ‘Music to Kill to’: Rwandan genocide survivors remember RTLM. Aljazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/kill-rwandan-genocide-survivors-remember-rtlm-200524092634842.html
Criminal Justice: Homeland Security
Helms School of Government
Lynchburg, Virginia, United States