MEDIA - It’s rare for journalists to have private meetings or retreats with a Head of State. And particularly in Rwanda , even the now monthly presidential press briefings are a new phenomenon altogether. The common practice is for presidents to only meet the press upon returning from foreign trips, on special occasions such as visits by their foreign counterparts or addresses regarding some other unusual events.
Today, however, it is a completely different situation as President Paul Kagame addresses the press on a monthly basis. But a more significant historic event in as far as media is concerned in this country took place this week.
At the request of journalists themselves, the President held a closed meeting with various media association officials, proprietors, managers, editors and reporters on Monday and Tuesday, at Village Urugwiro. They were highly interactive and candid meetings.
It was a great opportunity for both parties to discuss carrier challenges – on the President’s part and professional hazards, excesses, disappointments – on the media’s part.
Unsurprisingly, it was tense on the first day as the President and some journalists tried to understand each other’s position.
Some of the journalists had the guts to defiantly question basic journalistic principles the President was emphasizing right from the start. Many times journalist colleagues explicitly took on each other, challenging the worthiness of certain articles they thought clearly undermined government or the person of the President or both, deliberately or ignorantly.
At the end of it all though, it was all smiles as the President’s face and indeed those of the journalists shone with delight.
On behalf of government, the President made significant concessions to help media development, while the pressmen pledged to be more responsible in the execution of their duties.
The icing on the cake was a Birthday card presented to the Head of State by the delighted members of the Fourth Estate.
Coming seven days ahead of October 23, the media fraternity probably was the first to wish President Kagame a happy 50th birthday.
You had to be there to understand the curiosity President showed as he waited for Rudatsimburwa when the latter walked towards the back of the room to collect the white card, which also carried signatures of the participating journalists.
Indeed, it seemed to be a pleasant surprise for the President when Rudatsimburwa told him that journalists wished to demonstrate to the Head of State how grateful they were for the memorable meeting.
The advance half a century birthday gift came to Kagame almost two months after he marked his fourth anniversary as elected President.
“It is these 50 years that have made me the bad or good person that I am today,” the elated Kagame told the about 60 journalists, as he admired the card which had the inscriptions:
“Congratulations for your 50th Birthday”. Then holding the one and a half meter long, one meter wide card from one side – with the other held by the Press House chief, Albert Rudatsimburwa, who handed him the gift – Kagame joked: “If I have been bad in all these fifty years, it means I cannot get worse; it can only be time to get better.”
Yes, it was such an unprecedented, perhaps a lifetime experience to some. And guess what followed; after several photos were taken by the President’s photographer to capture Kagame holding his gift, all the journalists present had a rare opportunity to take photographs with the Head of State.
They posed free-style, with some squatting, sitting on the floor, while others stood, with the President in the middle. The two-day historic retreat-like meeting ended with the President footing a bill for a dinner for the editors.
On a rather serious note, the meeting was by and large fruitful.
It came up with several important resolutions that, when implemented, will go a long way in developing the media in Rwanda .
One of the key resolutions reached was the proposal to set up a media basket fund or the government to provide guarantee for a soft bank loan to benefit people who would wish to start up media outlets.
It was however agreed that certain criteria will be formulated to determine what an applicant will be required to fulfil in order to qualify for either the basket fund or the soft loan.
The President also promised he was going to ensure the process to open a media training centre in Kigali as one of the efforts to build capacity in the media was accelerated properly focused. The centre to be called Great Lakes Media Centre will, according to the Minister of Information Prof. Laurent Nkusi, open its gates next month.
The centre will be affiliated to the National University of Rwanda’s School of Journalism and based in a building which formerly housed the headquarters of Credit Savings Scheme – Zigama, which now belongs to Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), and will primarily target unqualified practicing journalists.
The meeting also elected a three-man commission comprised of journalists to work hand in hand with relevant government officials to speed up the process to install a modern printing press imported by government early this year.
The web machine has capacity to print great quality newspapers at relatively cheaper costs. Several print media houses currently print their newspapers from neighbouring countries, mostly Uganda, largely because of the high domestic printing costs as well as the limited capacity and poor quality of local printing presses.
The President also pledged that government would give a permanent home to the Association of Rwanda Journalists (ARJ) and Press House, which are hitherto operating from a rented house.
It was also agreed that two journalists from the broadcast section of the media would be included on the commission mentioned above to review the current cost of acquiring frequencies after private FM station proprietors complained the price was unfriendly to the development of the industry.
And with the aforementioned results, there could not have been a better meeting between journalists and the Head of State.