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On the BBC's Africa Have Your Say, on Rwanda

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On July 14th, amidst escalating election violence and repression, Democratic Green Party of Rwanda Vice President Andre Kagwa Kwisereka was found beheaded, with a machete left nearby, in the wetlands of the Makula River in Rwanda's Butare Province, in a grisly murder reminiscent of the Rwanda Genocide, in which upwards of a million people were killed, many with machetes and crude farm implements. Just over a week later, the BBC's Africa Have Your Say produced a program asking the curious question, "Can Rwanda have a free and fair election?"

Have Your Say put many voices on the air, some of them quite critical, regarding Rwanda's upcoming August 9th presidential polls, but it was very late, after an election year racked by violence, arrests, assassinations, and torture, all suffered by critics of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, for the BBC to be asking "Can Rwanda have a free and fair election?"

It's been obvious to anyone paying attention that ther
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e would be no free and fair election in Rwanda, because all the viable opposition parties were prevented from registering, and were routinely interrogated and harassed. Many were eventually arrested, many are still in prison, or disappeared, and many of those arrested have reported torture. Independent journalists have fled across the Rwandan border to Uganda, or been assassinated or arrested themselves.

On July 13th, the Vice President of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda was finally found beheaded by machete.

On July 21st, six more members of Bernard Ntaganda's P.S. Imberakuri Party were arrested.

The world has been so radically changed by the Internet that such things are known all over the world almost as soon as they happen. I received news that Kwisereka's body had been found within hours and received three notifications, with names of those arrested, from credible sources including the Rusesabagina/Hotel Rwanda Foundation and a European branch of P.S. Imberakuri, on the same day they were arrested.

Despite all this and more, the BBC seriously entertained the Kagame government's Kafkaesque argument that opposition parties had not been able to register because they did not check the boxes and follow all the proper procedures to register.

If a government, which determines proper procedures, keeps saying the opposition didn't follow proper procedures, no matter how hard they tried, no matter how many meetings they attended, no matter how much paper they submitted, no matter how many bureaucratic mazes they tried to find their way through, then obviously, they didn't follow proper procedures. Not according to the government, in this case the Rwandan government, which determines who has properly proceeded. (Rwanda has courts, but not an independent judiciary to rule on election law or anything else.)

I followed all the news and firsthand reports, from the opposition leaders, daily, for months, as the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda made endless applications amd supplications and sought meeting after meeting with various Rwandan officials, and tried over and over again to convene. Was I there myself? No, I was not; nor was anyone in Rwanda wandering through Rwanda's bureaucratic maze, day after day, with Democratic Green Party of Rwanda President Frank Habineza and other Rwanda Greens. And in almost a year's time, the NY Times East/Central Africa correspondent Nicholas Kristoff made not a single visit or call to any of the opposition candidates struggling to contest the election.

I was on the phone to Frank Habineza several times a week, at first, then to both FDU-Inkingi Party's Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza and P.S.-Imberakuri Party's Bernard Ntaganda. And I read all the English language papers.

I also read papers they submitted, read the government's responses, and watched from a distance as the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda saw them blocked again and again.

In October 2009, the BBC did a very good job of covering one of the Rwanda Greens' attempts to convene in Kigali, which was broken up by violence, producing the podcast available here: http://goo.gl/r33W, in which an injured delegate reported that a man had stood up behind her and begun chanting "Hail the RPF!" (Rwanda's ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front party), then hit her in the back with a chair. They also put Green Party Chair Frank Habineza on the air saying, "There is no rule of law in Rwanda! . . . If you want to keep us out of the elections, and you want to get 99% of the vote, then you have to say it!"

After the BBC report about that meeting, the Greens met with officials about whether or not they would be allowed to hold a meeting, which concluded in dates for further meetings about whether or not they could have another meeting about whether or not they could hold another meeting after that to talk about the possibility of perhaps having another meeting to talk, once again, about the possibility of having a meeting about whether or not they might be allowed to convene.

Various district mayors pulled their permits for a DGPR convention, a required "procedure" for registering a political party in Rwanda, amidst this endless runaround as well.

The government told the Rwanda Greens that they had to arrange police protection, to assure safety, then the Rwandan Police told them that they weren't in the business of assuring safety at political conventions.

Did the BBC review its own invaluable reporting, including their radio report on the Rwanda Greens' failed meeting in November, and their text reports on journalist Jean Leonard Rugambage's assassination by gunfire and Rwanda Green Party Vice President Andrà Kwisereka's beheading by machete, and much more election violence? If so, didn't they realize how very late it was to be asking "Can Rwanda have a free and fair election?"

There are certainly advantages to reporting "on the ground" in Rwanda, especially in the Rwandan countryside where the majority of Rwanda's population, impoverished and malnourished rural subsistence farmers who speak only Kinyarwanda, struggle to survive, but no one had to be "on the ground" to see how ridiculous all this was. All they had to do was pay attention, and the Rwandan government counted on most of the world turning away, as they are so famously reported to have turned away from Rwanda in 1994.

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Ann Garrison is an independent journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes region. She can be reached (more...)

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