A minister of justice who combines ministerial responsibilities with those of Attorney-General, is interviewed on a current affairs programme about what has become a high profile case. Interviewees rarely come more heavy weight. Any viewer is entitled to expect to be well informed by the time the interview ends. So how did Al Jazeera’s Upfront manage to sow confusion where there might have been clarity?
In the hands of the excellent Mehdi Hasan, the programme, Upfront, steered an assured course that held the powerful to account, with an analytical layer by layer peeling of issues that left little hidden from the viewer.
No longer it would seem. The programme now gives the impression of having joined the many others, for which sensationalism is more prised than informing its viewers. What is deemed “good television” is preferred to good journalism, which is perhaps disregarded as too prosaic.
The interview was of course about Paul Rusesabagina, who is now on trial for terrorism, among other serious crimes.
The programme requests an interview of the minister, presumably to talk about those aspects of the case about which the minister could speak, in view of the fact that the case is ongoing. The minister grants the interview. So far so, well, so prosaic.
The interviewer however, had an ace up his sleeve however, or so he, and presumably his production team, believed.
As is now common with almost all government spokespeople, the minister, Johnston Busingye, is given media advice prior to the interview.
This is done virtually, media consultancy having been outsourced to a London based PR firm. Inexplicably, the recording of this briefing ends up in the hands of Al Jazeera.
We do not know how such a fiasco came about, or, assuming it was inadvertent, who was responsible for it.
If it was the company, it was to say the least unfortunate. They may be an external adviser, but absolute confidentiality nonetheless is expected. We can only speculate, but the steps it would have taken to send such a large file, would surely have been enough to alert the sender that it was going to the wrong recipient.
Whoever was responsible, the blunder was monumental. But the eavesdropping was also unfortunate for the programme. The apparent belief that they had laid their hands on some major scoop, seemed to have led them to lose their heads, with the interviewer, Marc Lamont Hill, determined to milk it for all it was worth.
We get an idea of this, from the first line of his pithy cue. He asks whether “Rwanda broke international law, by abducting an exiled “dissident”?
The story of how Paul Rusesabagina got to Rwanda had been the subject of fevered speculation by everyone from the media, to human rights organisations.
They alleged everything from kidnap, “extraordinary rendition” “enforced disappearance” anything in short that Rwanda’s detractors, and Rusesabagina’s supporters, thought might catch the headlines, and help their cause in denouncing Rwanda.
When the news first broke, Rwanda had firmly dismissed all claims of kidnap. Was Upfront, a current affairs analysis programme, about to present new information, either confirming or contradicting Rwanda’s statement?
Not quite. What it would do however, would be to pretend that it had some new, startling evidence.
We were first showed what the interviewer termed “the interview the government wanted you to see” as though the government of Rwanda had been part of the Al Jazeera team, which produced that interview.
For all that Al Jazeera made of that interview, they may as well not have bothered. But at least they wasted little time in getting to the questions that had been put to Rwandan officials several weeks earlier.
Although when it comes to not wasting time, Lamont Hill made up for it, with the kind of questioning that verged on puerile school playground argument for the sake of argument.
When he says that Rusesabagina got to Kigali of his own accord, did Busingye mean that after years of exile (and it should be noted, self imposed exile) Rusesabagina had then decided to board an aeroplane to Kigali, the interviewer asked. No, obviously Busingye meant that Rusesabagina was not kidnapped, as was being claimed.
That he had been lured, tricked into heading to Kigali, instead of his intended destination of Burundi, had been in almost every newspaper in the world. The details of that, Busingye told the interviewer, must be left to come out in the courts, the case now being sub judice.
Of course, agreed Lamont Hill, but could Busingye explain a “statement from your President” that the operation to lure Rusesabagina to Rwanda had been flawless? What, he wanted to know, was mean by a flawless operation? To which the obvious answer is one that goes off successfully, free of any impediment.
It would have been at least entertaining to hear how the interviewer would have responded to such a reply. Unhappily for us, Busingye is not given to glibness. He patiently explained what the President might have meant.
This however was not enough for Lamont Hill. Summarising what we already knew, that Rusesabagina believed he was heading to Burundi, he leapt to the odd conclusion. “Are you saying the government had no role in luring him to Rwanda?” A question that had been all but fully answered weeks earlier. It is however a question the interviewer would not let go, and the reason why would soon become clear.
Busingye carefully explained that luring suspects from jurisdictions where they had sought refuge from justice was a relatively common practice in international law, again pointing out that he could not go into details, in view of the ongoing trial.
Suddenly however, Lamont Hill makes the quantum leap onto whether getting Rusesabagina to Kigali amounted to “enforced disappearance” and “torture.”
Irrelevant, suggested Busingye, since nothing of the kind would happen in Rwanda.
The interviewer pressed on. In dramatic tones, he reeled out a litany of complaints that suggested serious ill-treatment of Rusesabagina.
He had been bound for three days, denied medication for high blood pressure, and feared he would die. He was afraid of catching Covid-19, or “Covid” as Lamont Hill, who seems to be on first name terms with the virus preferred to call it. And he charged that Rusesabagina had been denied his own lawyer.
It was of course perfectly legitimate to put to the minister allegations about ill treatment of the prisoner. But we might have expected more from the programme than a litany of complaints from Rusesabagina’s family, complaints which had not only been responded to earlier, but had been contradicted by the prisoner’s own appearance, in the rudest of health.
Busingye had predictably heard all this before, and he warily explained that these were unfounded allegations from Rusesabagina’s family.
When the story first broke, and he was asked about it, President Kagame gave two clues: Rusesabagina had arrived in Rwanda of his own accord, and that more information would come out in due course.
We now know that Champagne was served on the flight, and after a long nap, Rusesabagina alighted the aeroplane, still believing he had landed in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura, only to be welcomed by the Rwanda National Police, at Kigali International Airport. So much for being bound and kidnapped.
And as Rusesabagina himself indicated in an interview with the New York Times, his every need had been met. He has medical treatment as and when he needs it, and as for “Covid” Rwanda has been independently named one of the six best countries globally, when it comes to combating Covid-19. As the vaccination is rolled out, prisoners are among the first groups to be vaccinated, with Rusesabagina ahead of the cue to get the jab.
And the Minister explained that the prisoner was never denied legal presentation. On the contrary, Rusesabagina was given a court appointed lawyer on his arrival, as under Rwandan law, he could not be interviewed without legal presentation. Subsequently, he would choose his own lawyer.
The problem for Lamont Hill is that he seemed to have planned his interview as an exercise in entrapment, and when his best laid traps proved imaginary, he was left with questions that were either absurd, or non sequiturs.
When Busingye pointed out that in an interview to the NewYork Times, Rusesabagina had expressed himself perfectly happy with his lawyers, Lamont Hill shot back that had Rusesabagina not been “surrounded by armed police”? Doubtful, responded Busingye.
Lamont Hill tried changing tack. “They were in plain clothes, but they seemed like police.” No longer “surrounded by armed police” but discreet plain clothed ones. A thing unheard of in prisons, apparently. He suggested it was fair to interpret that Rusesabagina must have been under duress.
Would anyone under duress say he called for attacks on Rwanda as a “wake up call” to Rwandans? Busingye countered. “I can’t say” offered Lamont Hill, “but it’s an interesting question at least.” It was indeed. As was the question, why this line of questioning?
The answer to that last question lay in Lamont Hill’s dramatic Gotcha, to which he had been building.
Had the sanctity of Rusesabagina’s communication with his lawyer been protected, the interviewer asked, carefully laying his trap. When Busingye answered firmly that it had, explaining that there should be no concerns about the fairness of the trial, we came to the end of the first part of the interview.
Similar to much of the world’s media, Al Jazeera seemed to have little or no interest in the serious allegations which Rusesabagina was now having to answer in court, including acts of terrorism that left scores of Rwandans dead or maimed. The only worthwhile story for them, was how Rusesabagina was brought to Kigali.
Armed with the confidential discussion between Busingye and his media advisers, Lamont Hill had requested a second interview, and wanted to go back to the question of the sanctity of communication between prisoner and his legal representatives.
During the discussion with his advisers, Busingye had been clear that he considered it perfectly proper for prisoners’ property to be searched by prison authorities. This was as much a matter for the safety of the prisoners themselves, as well as anyone else who might enter the prison.
There was no deliberate intention to read Rusesabagina’s documents for his legal defence, which in any case would presumably be in the safe keeping of his legal team, since he is not defending himself. Searching and monitoring prisoners is the norm. They have no right to private property, while in prison. In this instance, we are told that an alleged plan for escape was found during the search.
How could it be a fair trial, Lamont Hill asked, if documents “that could be privileged” were “intercepted and read by prison authorities.” Then he quietly segues at an entirely new accusation, but which he presents as accepted fact. “How can this be a fair trial, if your government is reading the documents that include Mr Rusesabagina’s defence strategy for example?”
Once again, Busingye patiently explains the obvious. The prison services are an autonomous institution, he reminds Lamont Hill. They carry out searches as expected, and if there is nothing untoward, return the property to the prisoner. The government, as the interviewer was insinuating, had nothing to do with the process.
Busingye further reiterates the sanctity of communication between a prisoner and his legal team, which he repeats is protected under the law.
At this point, the line of questioning becomes even more bemusing. Lamont Hill seems unable, or feigns inability to understand what autonomous means. He insists that if the prisoner service is under the supervision of the justice ministry, and Busingye is the minister of justice, a member of the government, prison authorities going thought a prisoner’s property necessarily means the government is doing so.
Busingye seems to ignore the absurdity, and carefully explains the problem with that assumption, and the interviewer realises he will get no further mileage out of that line of questioning.
But he had got his Gotcha footage from whoever had fed it to him, and was damned if he was going to be cheated from making a mountain out of this particular mole hill.
“Why” he asked, “would a legal document be a security concern?” It would not, and it was not deemed to be. The prison authorities did not go looking for legal documents, they may have alighted on them in their normal search of the prisoner.
“It’s just a bit confusing to me” Lamont Hill pressed, feigning innocence, “yesterday you said the sanctity of legal communication was protected, and yet on the tape you say legal documents have been examined. How do you account for the difference between what you said to me yesterday, and what you are saying to me now?” Gotcha, he might have added.
Except, there was no real difference between what the minister had said in the earlier interview, and was in the obtained recording. No gotcha.
If in the course of searching a prisoner’s belongings, a legal document is alighted upon, and it is handed back to him, an inference that his legal rights have been violated are somewhat overreaching.
Lamont however saw it differently. Busingye is a member of the government, the prison system is under the ministry of justice headed by Busingye, therefore the government did see Rusesabagina legal defence. Did Busingye “misspeak” did he want to recant what he had said, offered the interviewer helpfully.
The convoluted reasoning, in which Lamont Hill seemed confused by the definition of the word autonomous, an attempt to make hay out of the obtained recording between Busingye and the PR firm advising him prior to the interview.
There was no contradiction between Busingye stating that the sanctity of communication between prisoner and his legal representation was protected, and prison authorities finding a legal document during a customary search.
Eventually, Lamont Hill reluctantly accepted this part of his questions too had hit a cul de sac and would not lead him to his gotcha. But he was not about to give up that easily.
He now latched onto who had paid for the aeroplane on which Rusesabagina had travelled to Rwanda, suggesting, disingenuously, that Busingye had misled him in the earlier interview. He had not, in fact the question of who had paid for the aeroplane had not come up at all.
Busingye is an urbane, patient man, but even he begun to show signs of exasperation with what seemed like dishonesty.
When the interviewer suggested that he might have been misled in the earlier interview, with a puzzled, almost pained expression, Busingye wanted to know whether he had even talked about who had paid for the aeroplane, which he had not.
“I am asking who paid” blustered Lamont Hill, “who paid?” The government, Busingye replied looking bemused.
“Now that you have a moment to reflect on that” the interviewer offered sanctimoniously, “the government paid for a plane to transport someone, without their knowing, and certainly against their will…can you see how that would be seen as an illegal extradition process?”
The ever patient Busingye, again explained that luring suspects from one jurisdiction to another to face justice, was common practice internationally. And far from “certainly against his will” the deception meant that he had certainly embarked on the journey willingly.
All seemed to be lost for Lamont Hill’s gotcha, but he still had “enforced disappearance” and “torture” so he threw that in once more. A last prayer. Was Rwanda not guilty of that?
Let the courts decide that, responded Busingye.
The Al Jazeera interview was less an opportunity lost, and more one perverted. Rusesabagina’s case has received global media coverage. Yet so apparently tempting is the need to praise the accused, and calumniate Rwanda, it would be easier any reader, listener or viewer of these media, to locate a needle in the proverbial haystack, than glean the truth about Rusesabagina.