In the digital era, the rise of social media has created influencers who have increasingly become a priority target for companies and PR professionals. Brands use influencers to push their products or raise awareness on their work, and with research showing that consumers are more likely to buy products through social media recommendations than traditional methods, the appeal of influencers will only continue to grow. Now, journalists, due to the nature of their work and the outlets they are affiliated with, often command an audience on social media. As such, they normally attract followers. Like elsewhere in the world, Rwandan journalists are among the most followed users of social media platforms, some boasting hundreds of thousands of followers. And, with companies and organisations looking to ride on the popularity and platforms of social media influencers, more and more Rwandan journalists are seeing as an opportunity to make an extra buck. But not without a bit of dilemma. Both business-wise and professionally. There are questions about whether it is actually ethical for journalists to use their social media platforms to make money through advertisement (potentially at the expense of their own employers) or whether this does not compromise them in their journalistic work, since there is a possibility of conflict of interest. Richard Kwizera, a multi-media journalist affiliated to Kigali Today and who often promotes brands to his 50,000 Twitter followers, does not see a problem with this. He told The New Times that like other journalists, he was initially only using social media to share stories or to look for story ideas before realising that he could actually use his platform to make money. That became a reality when companies started approaching for advertorial and promotional campaigns. “At the moment, we don’t use social media to interact with our followers and share our stories. It has become a new source of income ever since non-profit organisations and businesses started to approach us to advertise for them,” Kwizera said. He noted that being a social media influencer does not stop him from doing his journalistic work professionally “Yes, we may make money from our social media platforms, but at the end of the day we are journalists. It is important that you don’t forget the expectations of your followers,” he said. “These [influencer contracts] are part-time deals.” The two are not ‘mutually exclusive’ In some special cases, Kwizera said, there are contracts he can’t sign no matter how much he is being offered, especially where it could affect his relationship with his employer. “For instance, I can’t accept an offer to promote the programmes of RBA [the public broadcaster] while I am working with Kigali Today, because they are competitors. My employer expects me to rather promote our own programmes,” he said. He added: “The contracts we sign with corporate companies give us the option to include clauses that protect us from making mistakes that can cost us our jobs or that can lead to unprofessional practices.” Emmanuel Mugisha, the Executive Secretary of Rwanda Media Commission (RMC), told The New Times that it is not a bad idea for journalists to use their social media platforms to promoting corporate companies’ businesses as long as they communicate responsibly and objectively. “I believe the media is a business itself at the end of the day,” he said. “If there are companies that are interested in using their (journalists’) platforms to promote their business, I don’t see anything wrong with that because there is demand for that service and it’s a business because there is an opportunity around social media. The problem would arise when influencers use their platforms in the wrong way,” he said. The most important thing, Mugisha added, is that journalists differentiate journalism and public relations. “If you are working as a PR, you can only be held accountable on the basis of the contract you signed with that company, but not the code of ethics,” he said. ‘Not appropriate’ However, some see it differently. Arthur Asiimwe, the Director-General, Rwanda Broadcasting Agency (RBA), is one of those who don’t think it is appropriate for practicing journalists to accept payments to promote brands on social media. He argues that this is a recipe for conflict between the journalists and their employers. Companies should be dealing directly with media outlets and not their individual staff, he said. He also observed that this might end up compromising journalists professionally. Journalists need to be seen to be objective, balanced, and credible, he said, adding that journalists should instead concentrate on their job and helping their employers to be in a position to make money and pay them. “When you are a journalist and, at the same time, you are the one promoting brands out there, there is basically a conflict of interest that we should avoid because you will not be able to report objectively if that particular corporate company is in the news,” Asiimwe said. He added: “I don’t even think it’s good for a journalist to be involved in this. Journalism is different from commercial advertisement, it kills the brand.” Asiimwe advises companies to advertise through the media houses instead of the latter’s staff, in part “because it is difficult to compromise the integrity of a media house than that of a journalist”. He says media houses should actually benefit from their journalists’ social media presence since they are the ones that give journalists platforms to shine. “So, if we have given you that platform, it means you need to respect that platform and if a business comes to you, refer them to the company,” he said, adding that media outlets can in fact leverage the popularity of their staff to promote brands and make money. “That way, we are able to raise money to pay staff.” He disclosed that the management of RBA is developing a policy that details how individual journalists can bring adverts and earn a commission. David Bayingana, a local sports journalist and manager of the newly created radio station, B&B FM Umwezi, told The New Times he has four contracts with local companies to promote their products to his 62, 000 Twitter followers and 290 000 Instagram followers. “I am an influencer because of the personality and reputation I built,” he said. “Why are all journalists of the same media house not influencers? It’s their personal platform and only they can take advantage of it.” Is ethical journalism under threat? He also sees an opportunity in journalists serving as the link between the company they work for and the company they advertise for. “I can be a bridge that connects those companies with my media house. In other words, my media house can benefit from my relationship with companies.” Jean-Pierre Uwimana, a lecturer at the University of Rwanda’s School of Journalism and Communication, agrees with Asiimwe. He says journalists using their social media platforms for advertisement is a violation of journalistic standards. “News is sacred and shouldn’t be mixed with advertising,” he told The New Times. “The more a journalist gets into the business of advertising, the more their reputation as an objective professional gets compromised.” “When journalism lacks ethics, media houses lose credibility,” he observed, adding that “there is need to update media ethics and principles in light of the advent of social media.” Like Asiimwe, Uwimana recommends that media houses should instead be engaging their most influential journalists on pitching to companies in return for a commission.