Naturally, when someone comes out to defend and advocate for your rights, you’re expected to be grateful. Such is what many would have expected from the Rwandan media in the wake of the ever-growing criticism of the Rwandan government on press freedom by international media watchdogs, mainly Reporters Sans Frontièrs (RSF) and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Far from that, however, the local media fraternity is so disturbed and frustrated with these bodies’ uninformed and malicious attacks against the Kigali administration. Whereas Rwandans are used to such unfair attacks, local journalists were generally shocked saddened by the recent RSF’s ranking of President Paul Kagame as a top press freedom predator alongside the world’s worst dictators.
This is a man many in the local media consider a genuine friend of the media, who has twice refused to append his signature to media bills insisting that journalists’ proposals be included first.
These groups are obsessed with making wild allegations intentionally, or to a small extent, ignorantly. They make no attempt to verify their hear-say with the local media groups such as Rwanda Journalists Association (ARJ).
RSF, CPJ and the likes clearly undermine and by-pass local media groups even on matters that concern them directly. They ignore the position of the local media fraternity and yet naturally the latter should even be their official sources on matters concerning Rwanda.
In the minds of Rwandans, there are many unanswered questions with regard to RSF and CPJ. Do these organizations really stand for their publicly declared mission of promoting and advocating for press freedom? On whose payroll are RSF and CPJ officials since they seem to pursue an imperialistic and geo-political agenda in the same way as some western governments? And if they were to stand for anything near press freedom and media development, why wouldn’t they want to work hand in hand with local media associations to ‘free’ Rwandan press?
And in case their behavior towards local media associations stems from the suspicion that these associations are probably too weak to rely on, wouldn’t probably make more sense to try to build this local capacity?
They should be endeavoring to address whatever weakness that exist in the local media, after all whatever media freedom they may be advocating for in Rwanda would primarily serve Rwandans. That way, they will be fulfilling part of their supposed mandate – media development.
Only that way, can they win the trust and confidence of the local media fraternity and eventually gain the credibility among Rwandans – the ultimate beneficiaries of a free and vibrant press. Such an unbiased and fact-based work is what everyone, including media watchdogs, needs to remain relevant.
In its statement on the eve of this year’s World Press Freedom Day (on May 3), RSF claimed that: “every year several Rwandan journalists decide to go into exile because they find the atmosphere unbearable in their home country.”
But they will always shy away from discussing the very reasons behind these journalists’ departure, on a case-by-case basis. It’s public information that most of these journalists fled from judicial proceedings legally arising from their unprofessional work, while others made up stories to find their way out for personal reasons.
The organization also cited a case when the Government last year pulled off air a BBC Kinyarwanda service “because of a programme about the genocide that strayed from the official line.” Such a blanket statement is calculated to diminish the reasons for which the programme was banned for days, and yet even the BBC itself acknowledged the errors and promised to fix the problem.
Unfortunately, this programme being in Kinyarwanda – which is not understood by BBC leaders – some of the contents of this programme (especially Saturday’s Imvo n’Imvano show), still carry ethnically divisive messages, an illegal practice under Rwandan laws. Strangely for RSF and co. the government and the people of Rwanda have no right to ask BBC to be more responsible on such professional matters.
The France-registered NGO also alleged that the Government continuously harasses “two newspapers, Umuvugizi and Umuseso (the regime’s bugbear) and prosecute their editors because of their reporting.” One wonders whether these two newspapers – out of more than five dozens newspapers and 14 radio stations – were the only media houses that report news.
Save from the recent decision to suspend these tabloids for six months – which in the eyes of many Rwandan journalists was actually long overdue considering their longstanding sensational and irresponsible reporting– none of the two publications has a journalist behind bars.
None of them or any other media house has had a journalist killed at the hands of anyone, let alone the state, under President Kagame’s regime. And yet Rwanda is repeatedly ranked even worse than countries with a big number of journalists in jail, and where media practitioners continue to get killed \ in cold blood.
Rwandan journalists recognize that this country’s media situation is not snow white. But it also appreciates the tremendous progress towards making the media a better profession.
The ongoing initiative to enact an Access to Information law will go a long way in improving the environment in which journalists operate. The plan to transfer the National University of Rwanda’s School of Journalism to Kigali is popular among practicing journalists.
President Kagame’s live monthly press conferences are a rare phenomenon worldwide. Journalists use this occasion to ask the Head of State anything to the extent that some ask him questions that should otherwise be answered by the leaders at the lowest administrative level (umudugudu), or instead of posing a question, take minutes lecturing on what should or shouldn’t be done by the President and his government.
But the President will leave no question unanswered, even the most stupid of them. Of course for RSF, a live press conference where all media houses are invited, and journalists pose any questions is no measure of freedom of the press.
Regardless of what the so-called media watchdogs say, however, the Rwandan media fraternity will continue to push for media-friendly laws and practices. For instance, Rwandan journalists continue to urge the Government to decriminalize libel and defamation.
Although no journalist is behind bars on these charges, such cases out to be treated as civil and therefore should not result in jail terms for media practitioners.
Otherwise, RSF should stop pretending that they are more committed to our own freedom more than ourselves...
James is the First Vice President of Rwanda Journalists Association (ARJ)