Debate on whether local media are ready for self-regulation is simply unwarranted

Ever since the Cabinet announced that media regulation will no longer be the responsibility of the Media High Council (MHC), but of a media professionals’ body, about a fortnight ago, debate has ensued as to whether the local media industry is ready for self-regulation.Strangely, some of the skeptics are media practitioners/owners. Of course, the majority of media professionals received the news with much excitement, even though not many could figure out exactly how things will evolve thereafter.

Ever since the Cabinet announced that media regulation will no longer be the responsibility of the Media High Council (MHC), but of a media professionals’ body, about a fortnight ago, debate has ensued as to whether the local media industry is ready for self-regulation.

Strangely, some of the skeptics are media practitioners/owners. Of course, the majority of media professionals received the news with much excitement, even though not many could figure out exactly how things will evolve thereafter.

The beauty of the latter category is the fact that they are evidently eager to use the opportunity to prove that the local media have matured enough to carry on with their business more responsibly.

Indeed, why should someone outside your profession determine how you should or should not go about your job? If physicians, lawyers and other professionals can get themselves organized, why not the members of the Fourth Estate?

Two reasons are advanced by those questioning the move. Some point to our media’s history. Rwandans will never forget the grave consequences of the hate media campaign in the run-up to and during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. According to this school of thought, it’s too early for the government to let go of media regulation.

However, it’s also right to argue that genuine media practitioners were not entirely in charge of the media outlets that incited the public to commit genocide. Extremist politicians did not only write editorial policies, but authored and broadcast hate messages.

Of course some journalists – just like many other categories of Rwandans – embraced and preached the genocidal ideology. Some personally  participated in the killings, the same way some medical doctors, lawyers, politicians and hundreds of thousands of other Rwandans did.

If other professionals have since moved on, why should journalists continue to carry the burden of that dark past?

A group of political and military leaders once plunged this country into one of the worst human tragedies of the 20th century, while another did not only stop the Genocide, but have since set the country on course to becoming one of the major success stories of the 21st century.

Similarly, many Rwandan journalists and media organs have since played a significant role in reconciling Rwandans. In fact, a recent independent survey, showed that Rwandans expressed overwhelming confidence in the role of the  broadcasting media in reconciling Rwandans (92.45%),  higher than the perceived role of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC), which scored 83.5%, and the mediators (Abunzi), who received 88.55%.

Although the print media scored only 53.3 percent in the public perception survey, the aggregate confidence in the media was at 73 percent, which is a strong vote of confidence in the industry. Two years on, I am sure the perception is even more favourable.

The majority of the present-day journalists are relatively involved in addressing critical national development issuesThese journalists represent a new generation of media practitioners, keen on exercising their profession freely and responsibly.

Another argument against the self-regulation move is that the local media have no capacity to regulate themselves! Those behind this suggestion claim that our media associations are too weak and hardly represent the entire media landscape.

From the surface, they are right. However, they need to be reminded that in 1994, the country was at its weakest point. Everything started from scratch; from state institutions to socio-economic infrastructure. The country had been written off in every aspect of life.

Yet, Rwandans did not fear to confront the reality and to start putting together the building blocks, practically against all odds.

Later, as the government established itself and seemed to be putting everything in order, it realised the country needed more than just a government to move forward. Thus, they actively got involved in the creation of a formal private sector with official structures.

Had people failed to realise the need to get things done no matter at what cost, and just kept moaning and whining, both the Private Sector Federation and the Platform for Civil Society Organisations of Rwanda – with all their positive impact – wouldn’t be in place today.

Like the old saying, where there is a will there’s a way, Rwandan journalists should be  excited by the self-regulation feat.

We should not waste any more time discussing the timing of the decision – after all self-regulation is a best practice with regard to media freedom – but quickly move to lay mechanisms within which to best regulate ourselves as peers. It’s an opportunity we cannot afford to squander.

munyanezason@yahoo.com

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