Last week, I highlighted in this Column the need for Rwanda’s media to reposition themselves and to begin reaching out to the ordinary people, whose concerns and aspirations remain anything, but a priority for most of our media.
The truth is that our media industry is currently undergoing a critical transition phase, it’s moving away from a highly irresponsible and propaganda instrument to a professional and responsible sector.
The process has been excruciatingly slow because of both internal and external reasons. The biggest stumbling block, however, is deeply rooted within the media. And, if media practitioners can overcome the internal hindrances, then they stand a good chance to meaningfully tackle the external challenges and achieve relative success. After all, there will never be a day when journalism, anywhere in the world, will be without such external challenges as restrictions in accessing information and undue influence from the rest of the society.
Such external challenges are tied to the nature of the profession of journalism, and any real media practitioner will always anticipate them. Success in the media does not come on a silver platter, and that’s what makes this profession un attractive for the fainthearted.
Nonetheless, as pointed out earlier on, once the local media have put their own house in order (since fundamental internal weaknesses abound in almost all our media organs), they will meaningfully and collectively tackle the restrictive external factors.
This Column will attempt to discuss some of the critical internal weaknesses in our media, and how best they can be overcome. To begin with, only a handful of our media organs boast of having two out of four main factors of production; land, capital, labour and entrepreneurship.
Most of those with relatively qualified workers and known physical address, lack clear business plans and survive on hand-to-mouth ideas. Yet, the media outlets in this category are the ones which are relatively more stable, and with a semblance of a true media house.
The majority of others are a one or two-man businesses. They have no payroll official work station, company back accounts, etc. Unfortunately, this category is the one that largely shapes the face of Rwanda’s media industry. For a long time, some owners of these ‘briefcase’ media houses have played the wait-and-see game, with a false hope that somehow Manna will fall from Heaven overnight, and it will all be a new world for them. Others have gone out of their way to blame everyone for their own failures, brandishing blackmail and intimidating businesses into advertising with them. However, even those who managed to scrap a few coins from the public, through blackmail and extortion, have hardly made headway as they drank and clubbed nights away, instead of bridging their newsroom gaps.
A good number of journalists know no monthly remuneration, and their ‘employers’ don’t remit pension savings and health insurance contributions for their ‘staff’. Most media owners watch helplessly as their ‘staff’ scramble for Giti (discreet bribery in return for media coverage) and walk from hotel to hotel in search for ‘free lunch’ in conferences. They have no time and are not motivated to file stories because they are preoccupied with how to maneuver the day-to-day challenges of poverty.
As a result, readers and advertisers have waited to see newspapers on streets, in vain. This has been the situation for most of our print media year in, year out. And, unless the media themselves wake up to reality and appreciate the fact that they are primarily responsible for creating the desired change, this vicious cycle is far from over.
In the recent past, some media owners have been advised to merge their brands and pull their material and persuasive capacities together. By coming together, they can be able to benefit from economies of scale, grow into better business and editorial management, and create the potential for possible future partnerships with, or takeovers by more experienced and successful media investors, particularly from the region. Unfortunately, many of our ‘briefcase’ media owners have yet to buy the idea.
Meanwhile, reporters, on their part, are poised for a bigger say in the country’s media landscape, should the plan to transform the Rwanda Journalists Association (ARJ) into a trade union materialize. If the majority of journalists go on to subscribe to the planned body, the Rwanda Journalists Union (RJU), they will have a greater bargaining power to demand for fairer and relatively conducive working conditions from their employers.
RJU will not come to create conflict between media employers and employees; rather it will seek to improve the entire media landscape, in both labour and professional terms. But RJU will need the goodwill and active support of media employers. The latter, too, need to style up and play their part.
The author is a training editor with The New Times and first VP of Rwanda Journalists Association (ARJ)