KAMPALA, Uganda — Godwin Agaba rarely leaves his house. If he must, he only stays out for a short while.
This has been the case since last December, after the murder in Kampala of Charles Ingabire, a Rwandan journalist who had been his good friend.
Like Ingabire, Agaba had fled Rwanda after his reporting irritated the authorities there. Both journalists, after settling in Kampala, had proceeded to write stories that they knew would anger the Rwandan government of President Paul Kagame.
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Late at night on November 30 Ingabire was gunned down at a bar in a rough part of Kampala. No arrests have been made for the murder and the crime was immediately blamed on the Rwandan government, which had been criticized by his online newspaper.
Human Rights Watch said the killing followed a clear “pattern of repression” of independent journalists in Rwanda, where Kagame's government has muzzled the press, using as an excuse the horrible performance of journalists who incited the 1994 genocide.
For Agaba, 33, the murder of Ingabire signaled that he might be next. He kept a very low profile, and then, three days later, was able to escape to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. He remains fearful in Nairobi and said he will not feel fully safe until he leaves East Africa altogether.
“Ingabire and I were meeting on a daily basis,” said Agaba, speaking on the phone from Nairobi. “Those days I was close to him. People were seeing us together.”
Agaba is one of a handful of Rwandan journalists here who are marked, or so they think, because of their work. They cannot go to Rwanda. They frequently change their phones — not just numbers — in hopes of avoiding high-tech spies. And they are averse to seeing people they do not trust.
“I am all the time indoors,” Agaba said. “I was taking Kampala as more or less home, but I am limiting my movements. Kampala is no longer safe.”
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In the days when relations between Rwanda and Uganda were governed by mutual suspicion, journalists and other dissidents from Kigali sought refuge in Kampala.
But now things have changed, with the two countries politically closer than they have been in a long time. The transformation has been publicly revealed in the frequent visits to Uganda of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who recently was honored with Uganda’s highest medal.
Because of this détente, critics say, the Ugandans have no desire to get to the bottom of a case as toxic as Ingabire’s, or even to defend Rwandan journalists exiled in Kampala.
“These journalists believe there are many spies who have crossed from Rwanda into Uganda to harm or kill them,” said Geoffrey Ssebbagala, who runs a watchdog called Human Rights Network for Journalists in Uganda. “The political situation does not favor them to continue doing their work in Uganda.”
Reporters Without Borders puts Rwanda at 156 out of 179 countries ranked on its Press Freedom Index. The lack of a vibrant press there has encouraged the proliferation of online newspapers and blogs, many published in the local language, that sometimes have an underground approach. But their work, even if sometimes unprofessionally gathered, is a lot more informative than what the official Rwandan press offers, especially on matters of national security and political corruption.
Two Rwandan journalists, Agnes Uwimana Nkusi and Saidati Mukakibibi are currently in jail and appealing their convictions on charges of genocide denial, inciting civil disobedience and defamation. Uwimana has been sentenced to 17 years and Mukakibibi to seven years in jail. Rights activists are not entirely convinced that the convictions were warranted, and contend that the sentences are unduly harsh.
Rwanda denies targeting journalists, either for criminal charges or for assassination.
Exiled journalists are the product of years of a profound struggle between the Rwandan state and the independent media, and the terror of their daily lives reflects the belief that they are up against a fearsome regime. Many have sought safe haven far from Rwanda, in places such as Scandinavia, where they hope the ruthless arm of the state would not reach.
One of these journalists is Eleneus Akanga, who fled Rwanda in July 2007 and is now exiled in England. There, in the relative safety of London, he has remained a strong advocate for a strong press in his home country. Kagame’s attitude toward the media, Akanga said, is of a piece with past regimes, which despised journalists and sought to control them at all times.
“People being afraid of the state in Rwanda is nothing new,” he said. “It has always been the case and one can as well argue that it is perennial ... It is their belief that if you torment those who are critical then you force submission.”
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Akanga, whose last job in Rwanda was as editor of an independent weekly that was banned after its first issue hit the newsstands, was accused of being a Ugandan spy and of supporting Rwanda’s enemies. He was about to be arrested when he ran away.
“A friend of mine just leaked the developments to me as the state moved to charge me with treason and espionage, and I fled to the UK, where I was granted political asylum that same year,” he said.
The story of Akanga is quite similar to the tales of Rwandan journalists who were outlawed after him. Often the state declared their work unprofessional and blacklisted them, but sometimes critical reporters were accused of serious crimes. In each case, the journalists’ only recourse was to flee while they still could.
For instance when Godwin Agaba was named as a suspect in bomb blasts that rocked Kigali in March 2010, he knew he had to leave the country or face being jailed. Agaba navigated hills and valleys until finally he reached the border. Then, under cover of darkness, he took a back road and crossed into Uganda.
But the Rwandan journalist does not even feel safe in neighboring Uganda.
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