A typical Rwandan media outlet is made up of one individual. This same individual grapples with all the key roles normally performed by different experts in a normal situation of a classical newsroom.
The individual is the Publisher, Editor, Reporter, Advertising and Distribution Manager. He/she is the manager for finances and in some situations, designs the page layout of their newspapers.
Of the 32 newspapers registered by the Media High Council, no more than five titles manage to publish at least one issue a week. Of the five, at least two of them do not have a semblance of sole-proprietorship.
Of these two, only one goes on the streets daily and the rest are periodicals.
This is the reality of our media landscape. And this is what kept knocking on my mind during the first Commonwealth Media Summit to take place in Rwanda, which ended last evening.
This summit with a theme “Media and economic Development in a Globalising world” brought together heavy weights in the media industry, mostly drawn from the region.
As is expected of an assembly of journalists, a significant portion of the discussions was spent on issues of freedoms, interference, intolerance and ethics. No doubt that these issues are as pertinent to the media as the creed is to the Catholics.
However, the area of media and economic empowerment is what we seem to be missing on our national media footprint. How do we relate the role of the media to economic empowerment and yet the media in our situation cannot embrace some key tenets advanced by economics?
We are told media works in fraternity. And this tag of ‘media fraternity’ is meant to bring the fourth estate together by putting aside all differences, be it political or ideological and working strategically to advance and advocate issues that are of common interest.
But this seems not to be the situation with our media. The media continue to see no value in building synergies—in putting their brains together and agreeing to combine energies.
They still go the out-fashioned way of sole proprietorship, preferring to run their titles as one-man’s show. The subject of merging is resented and at times taken as an insult to their conscience or ability to run their own affairs.
Therefore, a scenario where the individual is incapacitated means the end of that particular title.
This definately is not sustainable, given the human capital limitations that we have within this sector We cannot afford a scenario where every graduate from the journalism school is opening up a newspaper or where an individual fired from a newsroom runs to MHC to register a title.
Look around even in the neighbourhood and point which other country has as many titles as we do. Even those with a significant number have at least managed to build one or two brands that set the standards for the market to guide new entrants.
Here, we still accommodate these lifeless one-man papers, which take months without hitting the streets. And you find an editor very proud to say ‘am editor of XYZ’, simply to take advantage of what the profession provides.
The sole proprietary nature of our media has killed a spirit of entrepreneurship. Almost all registered papers are run like kiosk businesses. Hardly any of them has an office address.
The few with dungeons for newsrooms hardily have any business orientation and a vision for tomorrow. There’s hardly any urge to build a household brand that competes in the market place.
Amidst all this, is a high level of mediocrity in the sector, characterised by a chronic violation of the professional ethics and media laws, sometimes not out of an individual’s will but out of naivety.
These ‘kiosk’ titles give room for journalists that abuse their independence in a manner that stands contrary to the democratic principles or ideas for which they claim to be fighting.
The way in which they present their arguments stretches the bounds of tolerance to the point where hatred appears to define the relationship between them and the government. While some push a biased political agenda, others unduly insult or fabricate false stories.
These challenges can only be overcome if our media understand the true meaning of the adage, “two heads are better than one.” A breakthrough can only emerge if our media owners are willing to seat on one table and appreciate the value of consolidating their energies to put out one or two publications that are worth the name.
But this cannot be forced down their throats. It must arise from the fraternity itself
Incidentally, the government seems to be running faster than the media itself, in as far as changing the image of this sector is concerned, starting with the crucial resolution on enhanced communication from the Kivu retreat.
Can the media rise to seize these opportunities? Time is not on our side.
The writer can be reached on twitter @aasiimwe and on his blog aasiimwe.wordpress.com