The media’s role in shaping societies is vast. The media can make or break a personality and even so, it is historically proven that whole societies have been built and destroyed by the same power, as seen in Rwanda’s 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Building from this perception of the Media, on May 17th to 29th, 2011, Rwanda hosted a group of 24 journalists, between the ages of 20 and 30 years to participate in the ‘Take Your Chance: Be the Change’ training workshop.
The journalists came from 13 different countries across Europe and Africa and from communities described as ‘opposed’ or ‘in conflict’.
Patrick Severin, Project Manager of ‘Take your Chance: Be the Change’ said that coming to Kigali with journalists from around the world was the best place for a living and open-sky classroom to understand more about journalists as human beings.
“In my mind, to gather 24 journalists from 13 different countries with diverse cultures and languages, was to create a great mix,” Severin said.
Severin is a Belgian journalist with 10 years of professional experience. He currently makes documentaries with longer reportage across regions for example; he recently produced the documentary on Rwanda, ‘Des Cendres dans Catete’ that is likely to showcase during the Rwanda Film Festival in July, 2011.
“I wanted to do something that would have a longer impact on people. To bring people from the Great Lakes area to work together and share experiences is really important for the region which is post-conflict and recovering.
It is important for us journalists to act as promoters of peace and I hope that through this connection, we can further empower others to be the change they need in their societies,” he says.
Severin’s experience in Rwanda has helped him to reflect a lot about his own country.
“To see, to understand and run from the process of Genocide and of how the media was used to build hate between people with the worst consequences we can imagine, makes me think about what is going on in my country and how the same processes are going on in the media.
“As a journalist I feel concerned by this and about the implications of what we are writing, showing and saying. Sometimes these are consequences we are not conscious of.”
When he imagined, ‘Take your Chance: Be the Change’ project, he found partners from Rwanda and Romania, the Urungano Youth & Media and LECS respectively, who organised the training.
Grace Ntahiraja, a 21-year-old Burundian journalist working with Web Television, Grand-Lac TV, says the most important part of the training was to be able to share with other journalists regardless of cultural or national differences.
“I have learnt to first understand others without prejudice or discrimination. We have spent time with European journalists and I did not think we could come to an understanding on various issues but it was possible,” Ntahiraja said.
“As journalists, we have to go to people, talk to them and understand them. We can do this without having pre-conceived perceptions and prejudices. To see the real person that they are regardless of their skin colour and background,” Ntahiraja emphasized.
Two professional trainers Sonia Sem and Mihai Iordache were in charge of the ‘Take your Chance: Be the Change’ sessions.
According to Sonia Sem, a professional trainer for 10 years, the training methodology was a way of increasing people’s awareness and consciousness on individual level.
“A respectful environment for everybody is created through promoting personal responsibility against prejudice and discrimination by increasing consciousness and understanding using educational interactive methods,” Sem said.
Mihai Iordache said the training for journalists was designed as an open learning process based on participants’ experience and exchange.
“The total value and outcomes of experiential learning can be realized over time. My job as a trainer is to build the experience, to facilitate the journey and to process it afterwards, to bring learning out of it. A profound training experience has a long-term effect, as it might bring insights and understandings after days, months or even years,” Mihai said.
The Media today employs the internet and through Information and Communication Technology (ICT) information is shared across the globe in one of the quickest means known to man: The internet is also the fasted way to spread stereotypes and prejudices that discriminate against different people and communities.
Antoine Louchez is a 24-year-old Web Journalist, working in Paris, France. He believes that once the internet is well spread throughout a country, more people will be able to create online newspapers or websites to share information.
Referring to the Arab revolution Louchez explains how news was followed in real-time because of the New Social Media like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace.
“Big media houses across the world were able to call for people to send raw videos about the conflicts and they used them to analyse events at that time,” he said.
“The younger generation has been recognized for their role in changing perceptions of their countries. They organized themselves in the shadows and through the internet they played a game between countries to bring change.”
However, he says that web journalism comes with its fair share of challenges—producing a lot and very quickly which sometimes affects the working conditions of web journalists or the content.
“As a web journalist this is tough because most of us young journalists get hired by the internet media because we work very hard and are not very well paid.
As a result, more young journalists are under so much pressure to produce quickly to maintain readership. Sometimes the information is not appropriate.
“However, if you want proper news you need to know who talks and who writes,” Louchez explains.
Project Manager Severin, says today’s journalists are the first generation to be connected worldwide through ICT. They have the incredible opportunity to be the most open-minded generation of journalists.
“We need to make use of ICT as an incredible tool to do a better job as journalists,” Severin said.
At 28 years, Herve Verloes, a Video Journalist, covering Foreign and EU Affairs, says preventing the spread of stereotypes through the media is a question of education. Verloes has worked as a journalist for more than five years and has travelled in more than 30 countries.
“Journalists have to educate the public and they also have to be educated. They have to do both, to learn and to teach, to provide information of historical, cultural and social contexts in society in order not to fall for stereotypes,” he says.
Verloes attributes the lack of time, financial and economic pressure in mainstream media and the fear of journalists to lose their jobs as the main reasons as to why journalists write about stereotypes.
“Stereotypes are appealing and easy to understand and explain to people. Media just heightens the full story and provides a simplified version of the reality.
Journalists don’t have enough time, so they just jump to what they know will make a story sexy and then go on to the next one to beat deadlines.
“In Europe, more and more journalists in newspapers are working like that because they have to produce several articles to compete with other broadcasters.
“You have to be the first to send your story, the first to provide the information and most of the time you just work on your reflexes and if you are not trained enough to avoid stereotypes, you will use your reflexes to further spread another cliché,” Verloes explains.
True to journalism
“It’s exhausting to look for information, double check your information and go deeper in your analysis because it’s time consuming and time is money,” says Verloes.
However, Verloes argues that this tension is not the same everywhere: Journalist associations and people are reading and watching what journalists write since they are the watchdogs of society. This explains why responsibility is vital in the profession.
During the 12 day training, the 24 journalists visited three Genocide Memorial Sites across the country; Gisozi Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali and Ntarama and Nyamata Genocide Sites in Bugesera District of Eastern Rwanda.
“Going to Nyamata for me and seeing the role of other players in the Genocide, and seeing that the church did not do much, makes me surprised to see that people keep going there.
It was supposed to be shelter and it was not anymore. Some values that are provided by the church are not always as open minded as they should. Responsibility should be taken by the powers in the church for the things they do,” Verloes says.
“There are several contexts, civil wars, genocides, nationalistic actions, separatism, but the mistake is quite often the same: People want to make the differences between two groups.
“Look at what my country Belgium did in Rwanda that led to the long way to hell for many; just because of the choices they made in Rwanda during the colonial time where they decided to separate people in order to manage them.
We keep on doing that, you can see that we are still asking people to change their point of view to our understanding of the world.
“The media has a huge responsibility and are still in position to act in a good direction. For what I’ve seen in Rwanda, there is a new generation that is able to create everything. It’s time now to open your wings and make change.”
On the other hand Christian Katsuva, a 25-years-old journalist working with Radio Star in Bukavu, DR Congo, believes that African journalists should have the responsibility to report about the continent objectively. That is why he applied for the course.
“I wanted to be the change in my country DRC because we have several problems that need people who are willing to make change.
To meet with other journalists from the Great Lakes region and Europe in order to exchange our experiences to improve our skills and fight stereotypes, is a way forward,” Katsuva said.
Even though most of the issues around the Great Lakes region are not the same, due to the different socio-economic and cultural realities some are interconnected. Katsuva says journalists in the region have to work together to show the world that negative perceptions and stereotypes can be changed.
“As an African journalist, I feel that I have the big responsibility to give the right message. The perception of Africa really depends on how we African journalists portray our continent.
We have to be aware of our role to help society overcome issues related to all forms of discrimination. We can leave these negative perceptions behind and go forward,” he added.
Maria Balabas, a Romanian journalist with the National Cultural Radio, said coming to Rwanda meant preparing intensely to understand what happened during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
“I read a lot of books about how the media influenced the events of the 1994 Genocide. I feel that there are similarities in the way the media in Rwanda and Romania worked to exploit hate between people,” Balabas said.
Balabas says, in Romania scandal subjects surrounding the Gypsies, homosexuals and Roma are treated in hateful and aggressive ways without balance.
She argues that the society speaks through the mouth of the journalists and since Romania and Rwanda are both developing societies, how the media is understood in the future is very important.
“A democracy is mainly understood through the media, through justice, responsibility and balance of different views.
“I personally use my field with music to try and breakdown different subjects on prejudices and stereotypes in society. This training has enlarged my views of different cultures and my role is to understand and to not use those commonly used features of discrimination as we try to create a new language.
“The power of speech shouldn’t stay in hate or violence; the power of speech should stay in a better understanding of information and better writing about a subject.
This means to create for my society a better journalistic language, better personalities for using that language and more open-minded views to break internationally perceived stereotypes,” Balabas explained.
Pierre Kanuma, a 25-year-old Rwandan journalist working with Urungano Youth &Media under the Heza project, says that his six years of journalistic experience have taught him that Rwanda’s media history is very important for the world.
“To share our media history with other European and African journalists is very important for me because we know what the media has done in our country.
It could easily happen elsewhere and I feel that we journalists cannot afford to neglect issues of prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination because it’s our responsibility to change these perceptions,” Kanuma said.
According to Severin, all participants commit to blog and share experiences about stereotypes and prejudice in the media across the world. Published on the www.takeyourchancebethechange.com/blog, these articles will help journalists worldwide to be more responsible about what they write.
“Behind every journalist is a human being living in a context, in a society, in a flow and it is not always easy to stop time to think about what we are doing, saying and what is influencing what we say and think.
It is not possible to completely avoid this, but to be aware of it helps us to act differently,” Severin said.