Yes, journalists need to reform, but not just for their public image

Last Thursday, during a meeting between media practitioners and local leaders in the Kigali districts of Nyarugenge and Gasabo, the Director General in the Ministry of Local Government and Social Affairs, Fred Mufuruke, made interesting comments about leaders and the media.

Last Thursday, during a meeting between media practitioners and local leaders in the Kigali districts of Nyarugenge and Gasabo, the Director General in the Ministry of Local Government and Social Affairs, Fred Mufuruke, made interesting comments about leaders and the media.

He opened his statement by posing a question; ‘why do leaders fear the media?’ He wondered whether it’s because leaders think journalists distort or misrepresent their statements. Nonetheless, Mufuruke underlined the significance of the media in the society, describing them as ‘the Fourth Arm of the State’.  And, as he concluded his speech, Mufuruke appealed to journalists: ‘Please, reshape and restore your image’.

His words made me reflect yet again on the situation of our media.  At the moment, our media are at a make-or-break stage. They were born out of the harsh challenges of the post-1994 Genocide, and remain one of the few sectors that continue to bear the deep scars of that dark past.

Currently, sections of our media stand accused in the court of public opinion, of practicing irresponsible journalism, one that is dangerous to the country’s reconstruction and healing processes. On the other hand, some media practitioners blame certain segments of our society, including the Government, for what they seek to portray as failure to help tackle the core challenges that continue to derail the growth of vibrant and responsible media.

Yet, some have argued that it’s not a responsibility of the Government or anyone else, other than media owners and practitioners, to develop a relevant media industry.

Indeed, the Government has created an enabling environment for the profession of journalism to flourish. The presence of a friendlier law, a national body set up to help promote the media sector, establishment and operationalisation of a school of journalism at the National University of Rwanda and the setting up of a journalism school for practicing journalists in the Capital, Kigali, are some of the tangible examples that demonstrate the goodwill on the part of the Government.

It is, indeed, evident that the Government has done so much in terms of supporting the media. But our media still find themselves in the midst of perpetual problems. I refuse to believe that our media are under a curse as some people have suggested.

The challenges that we faced are explicable and curable. Some arise from within the media themselves; others have more to do with the general understanding of the media and who exactly it serves. Unethical and unprofessional reporting are some of the shortcomings that could be blamed on the media.

In private, some journalists have tended to argue that people who are not journalists, including leaders, most times, connive with journalists to publish false and misleading information. That’s maybe true but it’s a lame excuse. The media industry is not an island and everyone around it will want to exploit it to their advantage.

It’s only incumbent upon media owners and practitioners to refuse to become a conduit for personal agendas. One of the costs of not doing that is the complete erosion of public respect and relevance.

And in our own context, the cost can be far more devastating to the entire society as we witnessed 16 years ago.

That is why, when media fail to restrain themselves, then the rest of the society, through existing legal mechanisms, will move in to restore confidence in the industry. This intervention by other stakeholders is naturally unpopular among media practitioners; it automatically attracts condemnation from journalists and media freedom activists, in the same way the world’s football governing body, FIFA, will react to any Governments’ intervention in the affairs of national football federations, however legitimate it may be.

Personally, given choice, I would choose to move in and prevent a far-reaching consequence of inaction than appeasing world commentators. Of course image is everything, but you can take it away and save me tragedies.

Nonetheless, there is a responsibility that the society within which the media operates has. For instance, the Rwandan society reads our publications and listens to our broadcasts, and it advertises with us. Media houses survive on adverts and sales, and it spells doom for the media in case both sources, particularly the former, choose to disengage.

In that situation, since journalists earn their livelihood from journalism, naturally there will be high temptation to compromise their profession. Few of practicing journalists receive a monthly salary; have employment contracts, medical insurance cover, pension contribution and can access bank loans.

This state of affairs has resulted in the massive exodus of professional journalists to other sectors where they’re able to make a decent living. As a result, most media owners have no choice but to ‘employ’ unqualified individuals, who mind less about professionalism.

Yet, the media themselves must do more to attract both readers and advertisers. They will need to get more professional, and to genuinely serve the public by reporting the very issues that are close to people’s hearts. But to do that, the media will need the support of everyone, not contempt.

There is need to understand that media benefit the entire community, the leaders, the led, the nation; and not just media owners and practitioners. Media are a major factor in the advancement of good governance and the wellbeing of the people.

As such, their existence shouldn’t entirely be rested on the shoulders of practitioners; there’s more at stake than just practitioners’ reputation and pockets.

To reverse the current trend, there’s need for sound and strategic investment in Rwanda’s media sector. The Government needs to actively woo investors in the media the same way it does for tourism, agriculture, and other sectors. It’s a sector of national interest.

Yes, journalists need to and must ‘reshape and rebuild their image’ to remain relevant, but everyone needs to pull their efforts together to build a vibrant media, one that is in the interest of all of us.

The author is a training editor with The New Times and First VP of Rwanda Journalists Association (ARJ).