At times African elite fall into the trap of transplanting textbook theory set up in the context of developed countries and believed to be universally applicable without consideration of its relevance, and the differences in social, political, economic development, cultural diversity, and so on, in different countries.
During last Sunday’s debate on Rwanda television’s InFocusRW, the elite participants on the show created the impression that Rwanda’s media is not active in influencing policy and lacks in investigative reporting. They claimed the media had failed in its mission to hold the state and other institutions accountable. Even one of the participants latter wrote in this paper that “Rwanda’s media commits own goal”.
I would rather say that this is a simplistic way of analysing the role of the media in society.
Communication scholars (Dearing and Rogers 1996) define the media as an ‘agenda setter’ for policymaking and that media platforms determine what policymakers think requires attention and action. As much as this statement may be valid and true in the western world, with high levels of elitist population and economic development, the scanty presence of policy debate in the Rwandan media, for example, does not mean that our media is passive on policy discussion. In both environments, what is considered as news for public interest and news in the interest of the public is not the same. As much as I would like to see more debate in our media, the fact is that given the literacy levels of Rwanda’s population, and the social and economic status, there are more pressing issues that the media will focus on more than policy advocacy. This is the reason there is more information and education in developing countries’ media coverage, Rwanda inclusive.
In developing countries, there is still need to educate the majority of rural populations how to give their children a balanced diet to fight malnutrition, scale up primary health care, ensure protection against diseases like malaria, as well as fight against poverty and illiteracy. Such are the issues that our media gives more attention and which are rarely discussed in the media of the developed countries because they have been overcome there. Therefore, using the same measure to compare the work of the media in developed countries and in developing ones is unrealistic.
When you interrogate another space of thought, you will find that the other reason why policy debate is not common in Rwandan media is not self-censorship, but it rather has more to do with the English saying, “If it is not broken, why fix it”!
Rwanda’s rapid social, political and economic development, since 1994, is attributed to the visionary leadership and effective policies that have delivered miraculous progress to Rwanda making the country a case study for many around the world. The question then comes, if the policies that are in place are delivering the desired results, why waste time and resources questioning and investigating the same policies? It makes sense that the local media devotes more time and resources to stories of more public interest.
I am aware that foreign theories on the relationship between the media and civil society organisations on the one hand and the governments on the other, especially in Africa, are that the media and civil society organisations have always to be on the opposing side, even if there is nothing to oppose and that if they agree with what the government is doing, then it is assumed that such society lacks genuine democracy, or that the media and civil society organisations are operating in the armpits of the government and therefore are not free. This is a fallacy. Media and civil society can appreciate what the government does well and maintain their watchdog role without being compromised. After all, the three institutions work in the interest of the public.
Every society has its own peculiarities that determine the media content. Take an example of the United States where gun violence is number one killer of U.S citizens – last year alone, 476 mass shootings and 604 deaths were recorded, according to Mass Shooting Tracker) – with an average of 12,000 gun homicides recorded every year. However, even with much public concern about citizens’ safety, the gun control debate is hardly tackled by the mainstream U.S media. Yet this has not made the U.S media to be branded as ‘shooting own goal’. Furthermore, reports that analysed the U.S media coverage before and during the Iraq war, found the absence of a watchdog function and questioned the credibility of the government’s version of events, but the U.S media has not been accused of operating in the armpits of the government!
The journey of Rwanda’s development has not left the media sector behind in a bid to create a professional, vibrant and profitable media, one that enjoys fundamental freedoms and is able to create meaningful employment. With the government’s commitment to initiate media reforms since 2011, and the subsequent liberalisation of the sector, a lot has been achieved, including the introduction of self-regulation, the adoption of the Access to Information Law and replacing government owned media with a public broadcaster.
Furthermore, there were changes to the media law which saw the scrapping of articles that were deemed a hindrance to a free media and we ended up with a law that has only 26 articles, down from 90 previously. Community radios have also played a very big role in giving a voice to the rural communities.
The reforms, therefore, have led to the growth of the media sector, albeit not without challenges. Today, if a government official declines to give information as required by law, the blame is on their shoulders, not the government, because the law is clear. The law in question came into force only in August 2013 and we can only expect the public to gradually embrace its rationale and content.
From 1962 to 1994, Rwanda had only one radio station – which actually worked a few hours a day. Yet, in only 23 years following the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, radio stations increased to 33 and are working round the clock, while newspapers increased from 17 to at least 50.
There are also more than 80 online news platforms that provide alternative sources of news and in different languages. The media self-regulatory body, in existence since August 2013, has received and handled over 200 complaints that would otherwise have ended up in courts of law – at a cost.
Above all, these media outlets are platforms for policy discussions and hold leaders to account. For example, loopholes that dogged social protection policies such as Girinka, Mituelle and Ubudehe have been exposed by the country’s media and this helped policy makers to improve these programmes.
It should also be noted that, in 1994, over 60 journalists were killed in the Genocide against the Tutsi, and this had a far-reaching consequences years after the killings. Skills gap in the sector remains a major issue to date.
But, like it is said, “a child will not run before learning how to walk”.
The writer is Head of Media Development at Rwanda Governance Board.Follow https://twitter.com/GeraldMbanda