When the media turns tyrant

I am wrestling with a big problem - trying to reconcile contradictions I notice in the role of the media. I have always looked at the media as a source of current, accurate and factual information.

I am wrestling with a big problem - trying to reconcile contradictions I notice in the role of the media. I have always looked at the media as a source of current, accurate and factual information. I am not alone in this. Many people regard the media in almost the same way they hold holy writ.

This faith in the infallibility of the media can be summarised in the simple but effective statement: the media has reported it, therefore it must be true.

In the last one month or so I have discovered another side of the media – well, certain sections of it.  Many media outlets use this near religious reverence and wide reach to impose their version of reality on their audiences. It has happened in Rwanda in the last few months. This is the problem I am grappling with.

Some reporters who have been here have seen incontrovertible evidence of progress, but rather than recognise this for what it is, they or their editors suggest that it has been at the expense of human rights and freedom.

When confronted with the things that make the enjoyment of human rights meaningful – education that extends to an ever increasing number of people, universal health care, reduction in the incidence of diseases like malaria, and poverty reduction programmes that work – they dismiss them with the curt and arrogant retort, “but these are funded by aid money from Europe and America”.

Granted that this is may be so, but the fact is that the money has been put to the use for which it was obtained.
The message behind the arrogance is clear. We give you the money, so accept what we tell you. Even when it is clearly wrong? Apparently, yes.

Which is why the media will see people going about their business without fuss and say they have no freedom. They will see thousands of people sing and dance and say, they have been whipped to perform and feign excitement.

They will see hundreds of people lining up to vote peacefully and say, they have been herded to polling stations. Order, visible development and the enthusiasm with which people go about doing things are evidence of repression. That is the astounding conclusion of the media. And you must believe it because they say so.

Have you ever seen people who will tell you that white is red and force you to believe it, and when you do not they will give you all sorts of labels? That is what I have seen the media do in Rwanda lately.

An efficient system that delivers on its obligations is repressive. A leader like Paul Kagame who is passionate about leading his people to prosperity is authoritarian.

Governance built on transparency, accountability and the rule of law is autocratic. Expression of free choice must surely be coercion. In classical Orwellian fashion, efficiency, passion, transparency, rule of law and free choice are made to disappear. In their place emerge repression, authoritarianism, autocracy and coercion.

Now, that appears to me to be the real repression. I know not of anything more repressive than being bullied to accept that what you know to be right is wrong and that what is reported is right.

The bullying does not stop there. It goes on in the most brutal manner – which is to be expected because repression of any sort is brutal. There are no niceties about how you feel about the blatant inversion of reality. You see, being such a low creature, you are not entitled to feelings.

Still, you protest: “But that is not true. The truth is ...” But the great champions of free speech will not allow you to correct the record or express your opinion. They will not listen, or when they do, will trash what you say even before they have heard it. Your views do not count.

You are better off accepting what the media says, which they pass off as the views of the “majority of people” or “watchers of the Rwandan political scene”, or “informed observers” and such other self-given titles.

In reality these are the opinions of a few people with an agenda of their own but which they want to give a universal stamp.

So much for the sanctity of free speech. So much more for the tyranny of its crusaders.

I have read news reports of events where I was present. Very often the report is so different from what I saw that it may well be about a different event in another place. Of course people are free to let their imagination wander, but surely they should never let it run wild. Fantasy should not be allowed to pass for fact.

I have also been told that there are some sacred principles of reporting news. A good news report, I understand, must be objective, factual and balanced. The reports on Rwanda that I have seen lately are remarkable for the absence of these cardinal principles.

The reports are characterised by more opinion than fact, more fantasy than reality and more bias than balance. What passes for investigative reporting are actually the views of one party to the story.

Which brings me back to my dilemma. In spite of all this blatant manipulation of truth, we still turn to newspapers, radio and TV, and the internet for news and information. What we get, however, is a view of the world, not as it is, but as seen through the eyes of an individual reporter and his editors.

If he is bitter, you will get a picture coloured by bitterness. If he is a bully, you will be beaten till you accept what he is telling you.

It is a case of supreme irony that the whistle blowers against repression resort to repressive means in telling their story. That is the new tyranny of the media.


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