In the last few days, following the May 14th Twitter exchange between President Paul Kagame and former editor of the Independent, journalist Ian Birrell, a buzz is going around on the new dimension social media brings to the already shrinking space between people from all corners of the planet and all walks of life.
The mere fact of a Head of State responding to criticism by a journalist on another continent via Twitter was exciting enough; the intensity and following of the happening was an added first.
Exactly what happened? In a mid-afternoon tweet, Ian Birrell referred to the President of Rwanda as ‘despotic and deluded’ for saying to William Wallis of the Financial Times that he didn’t think Western media and human rights organizations, as well as the UN, have any moral right whatsoever to level any accusations against the African people or indeed their leaders.
Because, when it came to the problems facing the continent and its people, they were all useless. President Kagame retorted: "You give yourself the right to abuse people and judge them like you are the one to decide... and determine universally what’s right or wrong and what should be believed or not!!!”
Let me preface my account by revealing that Ian Birrell is no stranger to most observers who follow how Western journalists treat Africans as a people who need foreigners to decide what is good for them.
Let me also reveal that many of us never liked what he had to say because we felt he didn’t know and didn’t care to know. Looking critically at his previous articles: "Why Are Repressive Regimes Given the Succour of British Aid" (Sept 2009) and "The Dark Shadows that Stain the New Darling of Africa" (Nov 2009), it is evident that Mr Birrell is as biased as one can get.
His futile attempts to discredit a legitimate government and its leadership, and the recent spin given to his interaction with President Kagame on Twitter, only proves his lack of objectivity - a trait that should not be associated with Journalism.
The false premises of his arguments has always been that “a ruthless autocracy hides beneath the veneer of democracy in Rwanda” and that building strong institutions in a bid to “bring about such an economic transformation that historic divisions will become irrelevant” was too “big a gamble” for an African country and its people.
One thing is very clear to me though, Ian Birrell has limited knowledge of the East African region and the attitude to go with it. To be fair though, he’s not the only one in that part of the world and that particular profession with such leanings. Let me also state expressly my purpose here: Don’t be condescending; don’t be rude; and please ask your paper and your friends to allow me my rights to reply.
The African people fervently wish to be gotten right when they define who they are and where they aim to go. If you happen to have a differing view on either, it’s really alright, but please don’t pretend that our opinions and aspirations are a matter better left to others, people who know best, men and women whose goal in life is to save us from ourselves.
With this particular social media phenomenon, an interesting opportunity has presented itself to Mr. Birrell to “make news” and for the African people to self-define. In the news making process, the journalist went on to twist the exchange in his favor, peppering it with a bit of his usual “Rwandacondescendence”; elsewhere and from his own writings, the Rwandan reaction generated headlines that went from “spat” to “beef” to “row” and beyond.
Two phenomena are at work here. Firstly, simply because someone is a journalist does not make their comments fact. Mr Birrell did not provide proven indications to justify his assertions. More fundamental, and that was President Kagame’s point, is the question of who made Mr. Birrell and the other arbiters of rights he puts forth, the universally accepted definers of Rwanda and indeed Africa?
As things stand, most people can simply see the journalist as one individual attempting to express his views, even skewed as they are. Ironically, all the news sources that picked up this story have not commented on that fact.
I will spare you my comment on Ian Birrell’s rude character, lest I substitute myself to the morality police for cultures foreign to me, but let me just give you a taste of this man whose aim is to point out wrong doers on the Dark Continent: In one article alone, he jumped up and down from “deluded” to “vainglorious” to “juvenile nonsense”, every now and then tempered by milder qualifiers such as “arrogant”, “excitable” and “repressive”, the usual attributes of African leaders in Ian Birrell’s quarters.
After all, why should journalists substantiate what they say when accusing Africans of “suppressing the media” or “killing opponents”? This has become common place for people reporting on Africa where they no longer have to actually tell the truth.
An example would be the sad passing of Jean-Leonard Rugambage, A Rwandan journalist, who was killed outside of his house last year. In numerous media pieces this was mentioned as occurring before election and that the journalist was the editor of a banned tabloid.
It is usually here that the writers stop, leaving the impression that this man was killed by the Government. Sometimes this is lumped in with a collection of completely unconnected events to give the impression that this is daily occurrence in Rwanda.
However, they do not mention that the killers were found, admitted committing the crime, and that this ended up having nothing to do with the Government, the election, or the President.
If, God forbid, Bill O’Reilly was to be shot tomorrow, would the first suspect be President Obama? Probably not.
With the Birrell’s type of reporting, a challenge to decent journalists, especially on and from the continent has become more pressing.
As for Ian Birrell, he might just surprise me to respond to my Twitter invitation to visit Rwanda so he can learn firsthand what Rwandans really think.
The author is the Minister of Foreign Affairs