On June 17, a considerable number of local journalists spent more than eight hours in a Kigali hotel, discussing, article-by-article, a draft media code of ethics that will serve as a guiding tool for them after the government’s decision to relinquish media regulation responsibilities to media professionals themselves.
Reminiscent of any journalists’ strategic meeting, the session was characterised by passion, debate repeatitions, reassurances, and wild imaginations. Yet, unusual of typical journalists’ gatherings, everyone was unequivocally attentive, patient, and keen to reach a compromise for the benefit of the industry. That was the second time local media practitioners were meeting in two weeks over the document, whose drafting process was conducted by an eight-member task force, led by Jean Bosco Rushingabigwi, media expert and lecturer, with technical input from an expert. Members of the task force were picked by media practitioners during an earlier meeting.
On aggregate, journalists devoted 20 hours to discuss the 26-article document, excluding the days of discussion by members of the task force. Compared to other countries’ media ethics codes, ours, although it remains open to improvement before it’s finally approved, already stands out as a fairly comprehensive piece of document with critical guiding principles to professional journalists. Such is the backstage process Rwandan journalists are deeply involved in, as if to prove those sceptical of the local media’s ability to regulate themselves. Aware of all the prevailing doubts, the journalists are carefully and patiently laying a strong foundation for a new era.
The document entails the Dos and Don’ts for anyone practicing journalism in Rwanda, as well as their rights, both in professional terms and labour-related issues. Significantly, it recognises the important link between journalists’ welfare and the ability to exercise free and responsible journalism. In Rwanda, the biggest threat to media freedom is entrenched within the media sector itself, precisely in the form of unfair conditions at their workplace. You can create the most enabling legal instruments and have the most supportive political will, but as long as most media practitioners receive no regular salary, health benefits, among others, the level of professionalism will hardly improve. If the media sector remains unable or unwilling to retain its best talent, little progress will be made. Yet journalists should not sit back helplessly and mourn the lack of truly enterprising media investors or the sheer exploitation by some of the present employers.
Now, more than ever, is the time for Rwandan journalists to put their heads together and push for their common interests.
With the media fraternity still working out the appropriate framework through which to regulate themselves, the Rwanda Journalists Association (ARJ), which is already in the advanced stages of becoming a fully-fledged journalists union, will put more of its efforts in advocating for fairer working terms for its members. While ARJ will continue to play a key part in the advancement of professional rights, it’s important that it refocuses more attention on labour-related issues that continue to undermine journalists’ professional ability.
It is exciting that both the print and broadcast media owners have decided to form national apex bodies, notably the association for broadcasters, and the association for newspaper owners. The decision by media owners to come together under a structured group presents a huge opportunity for Rwandan journalists to meaningfully engage with their bosses on critical work issues. It is an opportunity because journalists, through their own labour union, will have a counterpart to talk in their quest for better working conditions.
Particularly, two factors make it necessary for journalists to urgently get better organised, focused and more strategic: the self-regulation move and the formation of the owners associations. A self-regulating media sector will subject journalists to a rigorous and constant peer scrutiny, and therefore, for one to protect their credibility, they will need better facilitation from their employers to file a good story. Secondly, with a forum for employers to agree on broad strategic actions and to engage with other parties with one voice, journalists will need to build their own collective voice to advance their interests.
To achieve that, each journalist needs to register as a member of the Rwanda Journalists Union, and get actively involved.
The writer is the 1st Vice President of the Rwanda Journalists Union