Rwandan journalists have often been accused of having played a major role in fomenting, inciting and fanning the violence that sunk the country in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
The highly publicized media trials and eventual conviction of the men behind the inflammatory RTLM radio and Kangura newspaper, at the ICTR, offer a glance of the extent to which genocidal ideologues can go in their attempt to influence an unsuspecting populace.
They successfully used all sorts of inducements, including handouts and privileges, as well as intimidation and violence against ‘stubborn’ journalists, to ensure that their hate messages are disseminated to the general public. A number of them took over newsrooms and assumed the roles of editors, news anchors and by-liners. Consequently, the media provided a ‘quick-win’ platform for the genocide agenda. For their role as conduits of divisive and genocidal politics, the media/journalists would later symbolize the despicable tragedy that befell Rwanda seventeen years ago. As such, trust in the media and journalists hit an all-time low, anywhere, at least in the immediate aftermath of the Genocide, and it has since been an almost insurmountable task for the Rwandan media to win back public confidence.
The media’s struggle to regain the trust gets even more complex every time sections of our media and the general public find themselves on the opposite sides on critical matters. We, in the media, tend to believe and argue that we stand for the masses and are only concerned with what improves the citizens’ welfare. We usually stick to this argument, even when the gap between our supposed mission (giving a voice to the voiceless) and what we practice widens by the day. I am sure Hassan Ngeze, Ferdinand Nahimana and Jean Bosco Barayagwiza (the RTLM and Kangura fellows) always, publicly, insisted they were doing the right thing, even at the height of the Genocide, although they, privately, knew they had flouted the very basic principles of journalism.
Two weeks ago, I had the privilege to be part of an ‘expert panel’ on good governance indicators in the country, including the media. The session had been organised by the Rwanda Governance Advisory Council (RGAC). We were a group of about 20 people, drawn from different aspects of society, including the civil society, the academia and the media. The session was interesting, but nothing was more exciting and thought-provoking than individual and, eventually, average scores (for each sub-indicators) and the candid discussions that followed. By the end of the session, I had come to the conclusion that, with all its past failings, the local media still have a place in the hearts of many Rwandans.
I discovered that the current crop of local journalists have only managed to contribute a drop to what people believe we’re capable of, at least according to that group. Almost all the participants believed that our media spend more time in speculation and writing/talking about personalities or petty issues that are a far cry from the daily concerns of the ordinary person. On the average, the panelists gave a paltry 10 percent score to the media, with regard to its vibrancy in influencing policy issues. Not that our media don’t cover policy issues; we do, but not with the sort of depth and informed analysis that would positively contribute towards policy issues.
Yet, it’s never too late. We still have a chance to get it right. We have the opportunity to take on the very issues that are close to people’s hearts – their welfare, and the future of their children. But we can’t do until we harmonise our professed mission and what we practice. Perhaps, it’s time we steered away from cheap and divisive politics that have dogged us for a long time, and get into serious and principled journalism.
Yet, we must be ready to put people’s interests well above everything else. Whether you call yourself an ‘opposition’, ‘government’, or ‘pro-government’ media organ, we must all share one thing: advancing the citizens’ interests; the rest is for non-media actors.
The author is a training editor with The New Times and 1st VP of Rwanda Journalists Association