Many in the government and high private-sector offices have little respect and much disdain and contempt for local media. They have good reasons, many times has the private press in this country made laughable mistakes.
What’s not laughable, though, is that these people, put in office to serve their countrymen—their national peers—and provide them with information, seem to look down upon them.
If BBC or New York Times does a story on Rwanda, you will be sure that interviews will be secured, and you better be sure that whoever is interviewed—be it a police spokesman or any other big official—they are often much more candid, and willing to be asked tough questions, than they are with local media.
The fears, as said above, are justified. But the actions are not. It is beyond true that Rwandan journalists are prone to journalistic errors and endemic with grammatical mistakes. It is rare that news stories in the local press feature more than one source of information per story.
It is often that they miss the central, underlying theme in the story, and even more often that really they are saying nothing new. But the actions against journalists are not justified. Take the example highlighted yesterday in The Sunday Times.
One of the biggest stories of the year so far, the disciplinary action taken against chief officers in the police force, was not only kept from the Rwandan media, but when the Rwandan media went after the story, calling and trying to contact everyone and anyone involved, they were treated like little children.
Rwanda owes something to its own journalists. The country is not a big news-maker internationally, sorry to tell the truth, and the best publicity the government can hope for will ultimately come from the domestic media.
At this year’s East African Investment Conference at the Kigali Serena, intercontinental journalists were noticeably missing. This is a big premier, both for the East African Community, but more especially for Rwanda.
It is certainly one of the biggest events of the year for the country, and the fact that the closest thing there was to an international correspondent was a Rwandan named Fred who writes for New York-based Bloomberg news, means that more attention should be paid to the loyalty of East African journalists themselves.
But when they need a question answered, even if it something as harmless as a circumstantial comment, they are met with disdain and a patronizing silence.
If we want to improve the quality of journalism in this country, something that should be as politically and strategically important as reintegrating ‘refugees’ in Eastern Congo, it is not only up to the journalists themselves.
Obviously, considerable weight for success falls on their own shoulders, but even if local journalists here were doing everything right, when they are treated with such disdain from both their subjects and constituency, only so much can be accomplished.
As long as those whose duty it is to speak to media shun that duty, and shun it with disregard, the media environment will forever be a microcosm for the political environment, a vacuum of accountability where truth and fact is not based on objective evidence, but on whatever someone says.
As a single event, it’s not rare anywhere in the world that PR officials and government spokesmen plead ‘no comment’ to the press. In fact, it is more often than not that a question will go unanswered, or a phone call never returned. The difference between here and ‘there’ is the incumbent environment itself.
In the United States, a spokesman may deny an argument put forward by the press, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Last year the general manager of the professional basketball team the New York Knicks was accused of sexual harassment against a former female employee.
Although Isiah Thomas, the man in question, refused to speak to the media, the story continued to come together. The journalists in the States were good enough to find other evidence, and most importantly, their own dedication to the story meant that Thomas was unable to run away from the attention by simply refusing to speak to the press.
Could a paper ever stick with a story like that in Rwanda? Would it be possible for the press to bring the head coach of a football team to his knees, because they published a true story about his crimes?
All that is needed here is for the subject in question to refuse comment, or vehemently deny guilt, for guilt to evaporate.
Even if The New Times were to publish a true story of corruption amongst state ministers, it would be as easy as an unreturned call for the integrity of that story to crumble.
Such is the world here that a journalist has zero credibility, but an appointed official has all. Even if it could happen in theory, it absolutely does not happen in practice. So we come to a story that journalists in Rwanda did not even pick from other journalists.
When the Ministry of Internal Affairs itself, and later members of the police force, broke news to the media that two chief officers had been sacked, the local press, naturally curious, went looking for more.
No more could be found. Not only did the deputy commissioner of the police refuse to comment, but the spokesman himself refused to say anything more. Over at the ministry, Minister of Internal Security told reporters to call back later, and summarily refused to pick up the phone.
Officials are childish, and though the press may be kept in the dark, just see how pathetic their display of patriotism and transparence is, out in the open now. Now, you tell me.
Say The New Times, through a bout of brilliant journalism, is able to find out more details about the case before the gatekeepers—sleeping and hanging up their phones—give us the “official truth.”
Would the public believe it? And would that story ever see the light of a second day after it is chopped into pieces by the very officials in question, discarded as irrelevant local media rubbish?