Tomorrow is another World Press Freedom Day, an occasion when the whole world turns the spotlight on the ever-important role of a vibrant media in any society.
Internationally, the focus will be on new media frontiers, and the opportunities and challenges that come with them. But in Rwanda, organizers of the event have adopted a theme that resonates more with the reforms currently sweeping through the industry, including the recently approved media self-regulation, which has a potential to drastically change the country’s media landscape.
Recently, a friend and I were discussing the significance of holding the upcoming national event outside the Capital, Kigali – for the third year running – when he asked me a thought-provoking question: By the way, why do Rwandans need a freer media? And he is a journalist.
At first, I dismissed his question, reckoning it had been raised sarcastically. But as we engaged further, he sounded serious. I realized he may have been genuine. Not that he did know that a relatively free media makes a difference in any society. Rather, he seemed to believe that there was little in government for journalists to expose! Really! Well, I agree there may be no officials in government who ‘eat’ a whole road.
The existing systems that govern public expenditure have made it more difficult for both central and local government leaders to fleece the taxpayers, and amass ridiculous personal assets. Yet, there can never be a flawless system. Not even the most efficient of systems.
That’s why we have had cases whereby public officials have been found guilty of embezzlement and others forms of office abuse. Nonetheless, journalists are not there to just scrutinize the government. The government is one of the players, and probably the most influential one, in a so diverse field where there’s so many other actors; the private sector, civil society, religions, et cetera.
For the media to better play its part, journalists must be willing to stand calmly on the sidelines, as a detached observer, driven only by a passion to let the ordinary people know the truth about their society, so as to make informed decisions when they are required to give their verdict. And a well functioning media industry is perhaps more important to those in leadership positions than anything else. It lights up their footpaths, and more importantly, provides a glimpse into the country’s future prospects.
The challenge for the Rwandan media is to go a step or two further in investigating and bringing to light secret deals, especially through flouted tendering rules, that go on in the corridors of power. In Rwanda, investigative journalism is nearly non-existent. Rwandan journalists are not short of excuses for this, but what they lack is concrete justification. A close look at local media content, shows that two kinds of journalism: one that relays to the public official statements and conference speeches without any further input, and another that revolves around bar talk and rumors, with no attempt to verify the speculations.
In this situation, the public lacks balanced, well researched and analytical pieces that clearly inform them about whatever goings on around them. That most of our news media outlets belong to either extreme ends, means the public are starved of those stories that would have enriched civic participation in national matters.
Who is to blame for this state of affairs? Perhaps nobody. But it’s a situation we must be seen to be getting out of. A well informed and highly engaged society is key to sustainable development. Yet, this enlightenment and participation would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve without a free and responsible media. A truly professional media industry unlocks opportunities, and enhances tolerance and democracy – which are basic building blocks for open societies.
We may have the best of legal instruments, but as long as we do not take concrete steps to fix that missing link the difference may be negligible. However, I must also state that there is no country with absolute media freedom. And this freedom never comes on a silver platter, it’s earned and eternally protected by the practitioners. A journalist without a passion for their profession will never strive for that freedom, and do not deserve it. They can abuse it.
So, if Rwandan journalists are not passionate about this freedom and are unwilling to earn it, they may as well forget about it.