Rwanda's media commits own goal

Last evening Eugene Anangwe invited me again to his InFocus talk show on Rwanda Television as part of a panel to discuss whether the media is playing its “watchdog” role. Anangwe even put up a mini poll on twitter asking whether the media in Rwanda is “passive in influencing policy formulation.”

Last evening Eugene Anangwe invited me again to his InFocus talk show on Rwanda Television as part of a panel to discuss whether the media is playing its “watchdog” role. Anangwe even put up a mini poll on twitter asking whether the media in Rwanda is “passive in influencing policy formulation.”

By the time I wrote this piece the results were showing that more than 80% believe the media is not playing this role.

 

And going by the responses to similar questions on his twitter handle, there seems to be a widely held view that there is very little public confidence in the media and there is little hope that things will get better.

 

In the modern state, there are three arms of the state: the judiciary, the legislature, and the executive. The media is often understood to be the forth arm and it goes by the moniker the Fourth Estate.

 

Inbuilt in the three arms of the state are “checks and balances” or systems for holding each branch accountable. Indeed, the relationship amongst them is both symbiotic and tenuous, with the inbuilt tensions deliberate.

Moreover, this relationship is built on suspicion of one branch against the other because of the fear that one will try to dominate the other two and to impose itself on them. As such, there are clear legal mechanisms whose aim is to ensure that the boundaries are clear and that minimal encroachments happen.

However, the 4th estate – just like civil society, religious groups, and the academia – is expected to hold its greater moral ground over the rest of the arms of the state. Because these entities are cause-based, they are the foundation of the national conscience and must morally impose themselves on the other three arms of the state.

One thing is crucial: the three arms of the state and the forth arm coalesce around a system of values and it is from this system that the national interest is derived. In other words, the four arms of the state share the underlying aims despite the varying tools – legal and moral – at their disposal.

Indeed, they use these different tools to punish – legally or morally – those who do not subscribe to society’s values, the national interest. For instance, the media might shame someone into the fringe of society through public shaming that comes from their anti-social conduct.

As a result, the institution to which that person is attached may decide to terminate their employment despite the fact that he or she has not violated any legal provision.

The point is that when it comes to national interests the media and the state are on the same team. This is what our media hasn’t understood very well. As a result, it is neither contributing to the articulation of the national interest nor is it protecting what are clearly national interests.

As a result, the media are seen as 5th columnists – not the 4th estate. Because it has lost the moral compass and the cause as it profession calls for partly explains the hesitation to fully open access to the media on the part of government.

Because it is not the moral compass it ought to be is why the government feels like it can tell journalists how to be journalists and explains the vote of no confidence and the general feeling that the media is out of touch with the public whose interest it presumably protects.

The media is far from being a lost cause. What is needed is introspection on the part of the media whose aim is to retrace the cause; it must also reflect on whether it is strategically useful to involve itself in a battle it cannot with.

Of course with the values system and national interest as their compass.

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