Last week was significant for the media in this country. Representatives of the local media fraternity and those from the Government, civil society and the private sector, as well as distinguished media personalities and freedom advocates from across the region and beyond, gathered in Kigali to find ways of improving the media sector.
It was a decisive moment, a make-or-break occasion for the future of the Fourth Estate, in a nation where virtually all sectors but media, arguably, reflect the country’s rebirth and ambitions.
Apart from the meeting, I was one of the few local journalists who had the opportunity to interact with one of the guests and renowned controversial media personality Andrew Mwenda of Uganda, for about two hours, on the sidelines of the meeting. Mwenda is a journalist who has attracted sharply contrasting public opinion, especially among fellow media practitioners.
The side session with Mwenda was prompted by his earlier presentation in the meeting, where, at least according to some local journalists, he largely dwelt on the commendable performance by President Kagame’s Government, instead of pointing out what the Government is doing or not doing right in the media sector. Several issues came up during that conversation, but in the end, most, if not all local journalists present, left with one or two lessons on what this profession is all about, after all. This column will attempt to share a few of the issues that transpired in that interactive session.
Throughout our discussion, it increasingly became clear that some, if not, most of our journalists believe, or at least have been misled into believing that, a professional journalist is one who is always at loggerheads with the Government, and who resonates with the opposition or anti-government elements.
In fact, some journalists tend to think that ‘independent’ media or journalists are there to play the role of the opposition. Yet, when the media side with the opposition, or take a hard-line opposition stance themselves, they cannot claim to be impartial, objective and fair as the profession requires.
Back to the private discussion between a section of journalists and Mwenda: Some of them told him they were concerned with his ‘positive view of everything that is happening in Rwanda’ on one hand, yet he has established himself as a leading critic of Uganda’s government, on the other. In the eyes of these young and ambitious journalists, Mwenda was more or less practicing double standards. We were about eight local journalists in the room, and The Independent Chief Editor was kind enough to allow each one of us ask any question, some valid, others outrightly nonsense.
In his responses, Mwenda challenged Rwandan journalists to become strategic thinkers and to, first and foremost, advocate for the interests of the common people, and not our own, or those of narrow-minded elites. His point of departure was that, Rwandan journalists have made a mistake of confusing their media platform with most of other media platforms on continent.
He pointed out that, whereas in many African countries, the media is often critical of their governments because of the latter’s inefficiencies and open failure to deliver the public goods, President Kagame’s leadership, has established itself as a people-centred, result-driven government. He argued that Kagame’s legitimacy, as Head of State, was, by far, incomparable to almost any other president’s on the continent.
He told the journalists that, whereas Kagame was not a saint, he was a leader who has risen above the usual elite politics of Africa, in order to directly deliver the goods to the people. “Ever since the days of Africa’s independence, he (Kagame) is the first African leader who is championing a true revolution on the continent, driven not by the interests of a small elite at the top, but by those of the common man,” the Ugandan journalist said unequivocally.
Mwenda was categorical; “Kagame stands for the interests of the people of Rwanda, Rwanda’s media do not,” Mwenda noted. He counseled Rwandan journalists to support Kagame’s revolutionary policies (of course not blindly), or they would remain irrelevant to the people of Rwanda, as they continue to serve as conduits for the self-serving elites’ attempt to hoodwink the masses into believing that they are advocating for their rights.
After carefully listening to him, and knowing the usual headlines of our newspapers, I got the sense that Rwanda’s media could actually be guilty, in the court of public opinion, of fighting the symbol of the people of Rwanda’s hope and aspirations and, instead, associating themselves with dishonest and opportunist elements who will do anything to claim legitimacy.
Truth be told; in typical African dictatorships and democracies alike, the ordinary people have no rights. Only a handful enjoy privileges in exchange for their support, either through the ballot or bullet. The RPF revolution has changed all that. At no time in the history of the country have the Rwandan people been treated as equals, with the dignity they deserve, than today.
Following our heart-to-heart session with Mwenda, I thought that the only honourable thing for Rwandan journalists to do is to redefine our constituency (to avoid the possibility of appealing to the cynical world and disgruntled Rwandan exiles, whose agenda is hardly in the best interest of the people of Rwanda), and to reposition ourselves as true representatives of the ordinary man.
That way, we will naturally be allies of whoever is using their democratic authority in the best interest of the people.
The writer is the 1st VP of Rwanda Journalists Association and an editor with The New Times.