At the risk of being accused of showing far too much leniency towards Rwanda’s media houses, I want to suggest that the current underwhelming state of our media as agents of the flow of information, interpreters of public policy, and overseers of all matters of public interest, goes beyond the rather simplistic account that our journalists are simply incompetent and prefer to focus on conference, workshop, and press releases as their primary sources of news reporting.
And while I will not go as far as calling media houses incompetent, like many people I acknowledge that our journalists, editors, programme and documentary makers still have a long way to go before they can truly assume their place as the fourth pillar of a democratic society responsible for keeping in check the executive, legislature, and judiciary.
But, I also want to assert that given that the media is both the watchdog of the other pillars, and the agent of information (allowing people to know all the facts that matter), the competence of our journalists alone will not be enough to elevate our media to the level we desire.
Many more interconnecting factors need to be examined in equal measure.
In fact, if we truly want to empower our media houses to become important players capable of influencing public opinion on all matters political and socio-economic, it is going to require a holistic approach that recognises some of the following factors;
Media houses require resources to function competently; there is an increasingly limited number of people who pay for the news; digital media platforms have propped up a new form of competition (and yet their set-up costs are low by comparison); not all public and private sector officials truly understand the role of the media in investigating, analysing, and reporting their operations; and our private sector, which should be the primary source of revenue for media houses (through advertisements mainly), is relatively small and largely reluctant to embrace traditional media platforms as agents of consumer outreach.
In essence, while it is evident (as highlighted recently on Eugene Anangwe’s show, InFocusRW on Rwanda Television) that our society is developing a longing for a world-class media characterised by journalists willing and able to take us in uncharted territory by questioning and interpreting policies, it is also true that most of us fail to recognise (and therefore act upon) the limitations imposed by some of the challenges I mentioned earlier.
For instance, while it is easier to pinpoint the incompetence of a journalist by reading a piece that lacks analysis, it is less straightforward to identify who is responsible for limiting the flow of information from, say, a particular government ministry.
Similarly, while a competent journalist will always try to find a way to unlock information of public interest, you will find that there are hardly any punitive measures in place to prevent public officials from withholding information that should be public knowledge.
My understanding is that although there has been considerable progress in information sharing, a significant number of public and private sector officials continue to treat information sharing as a discretionary gesture rather than a duty owed to the public.
Likewise, we should also acknowledge that media is going through a time of transformation whereby most of the platforms are moving towards an increasingly digital, mobile, and social environment that attracts countless players, ultimately limiting revenue required for media houses to grow.
You will find that with the exception of a few players, many media houses are increasingly finding it difficult to stay afloat because of the declining or stagnating sources of revenue.
As mentioned earlier, try and remember the last time you bought a newspaper, or if you are a business owner, when was the last time you commissioned a commercial on radio or television?
And even if businesses did indeed spend money on advertising, chances are that marketing officers have also identified several other platforms especially social media platforms – where they feel it is value for money because of the dialogue they can cultivate directly with consumers.
It is also worth noting that these changes are being driven by technology and associated social changes, allowing media platforms to become more fragmented.
It is now a lot easier for the private sector and even government institutions to bypass traditional media platforms and communicate directly with the consumer / citizen.
So what is the way forward? Well, earlier, I talked about the need for a holistic approach – to bring together all concerned parties so that that they can all understand that as a fourth pillar of democracy, we must all play our part in advancing the media.
Those responsible for churning out competent journalists must play their part; public and private sector officials must treat information sharing as a duty owed to the public and not as a discretionary gesture; journalists investigating or questioning public policy shouldn’t be castigated as opponents of our shared vision, they are simply trying to ensure we remain on course; and finally, you and I should also be willing to go as far as discussing the possibility of implementing a license fee system (taxation of some sort) to help support public service broadcasting.
And finally, there is no getting away from the fact that media practitioners themselves must be at the forefront of this transformation. They must find ways to adapt, innovate, and remain relevant in a continuously competitive environment of limited revenue.
Some of the ways to kick start this transformation is to embrace digital platforms, and fast – after all, chances are that both your target audience and sources of revenue (advertisers) have already embraced and moved to digital platforms.
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