Media self-regulation: Can Rwanda succeed where the UK has failed?

The News of the World (NOTW), which, until its demise, a fortnight ago, was the UK’s biggest-selling newspaper, may be no more but the full impact of the 168-year old publication continues to unfold as the saga surrounding what now looks to be something that had become a phone-hacking culture in the newspaper’s newsrooms continues to deepen and widen by the day.

The News of the World (NOTW), which, until its demise, a fortnight ago, was the UK’s biggest-selling newspaper, may be no more but the full impact of the 168-year old publication continues to unfold as the saga surrounding what now looks to be something that had become a phone-hacking culture in the newspaper’s newsrooms continues to deepen and widen by the day.

The ever-spreading scandal has shaken the British establishment to its core and fast erupted into a crisis that has resulted in the resignation of top UK police officers, arrests, interrogations, and ensued in frenzied political debate that put the country’s prime minister, David Cameron, in the eye of the storm, largely due to his perceived personal relationship with the paper’s former senior executives as well as the Murdochs, the family that counted NOTW among its global media assets.

Along the way, as the scandal assumed a new dimension, a whistleblower, Sean Hoare, an ex-NOTW journalist was found dead in his apartment in mysterious circumstances.

Surprisingly, his death has received less attention in the mainstream western media. If such a death had occurred in a non Euro-American nation under similar circumstances, the world media would now be full of all manners of speculation about a possible foul play, with concerted efforts to link it to the state!

Most significantly though, the phone hacking scandal has revived the public debate about media regulation, with Mr Cameron, coming out strongly to push for an ‘independent regulation’ as opposed to auto regulation, a practice western leaders had passionately sought to promote especially in Africa.

As a media practitioner, I find the argument that peer regulation of the media industry can no longer work insufficient and based on cases that do not necessarily represent the true workings of the majority of media outlets across the globe.

Interestingly, it’s not the first time some in the media exhibited appalling behaviour especially in non-western countries, yet western leaders had always chosen to defend such excesses in the name of media freedom.

Rwanda is one of the countries that have been on the receiving end, for quite some time, both from the unprofessional conduct of the media and their aloof  advocates, ranging from biased and politically motivated  western  'feedom' watchdogs to their patronising governments.

Even as the fatal consequences of the irresponsible acts of media organisations and practitioners before and during the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda remain far from fading, this country has always been treated harshly by the western ‘purists’ because it sought to learn from its recent history, demanding journalists to be responsible in the exercise of their freedom.

But now that the victims of irresponsible journalism are the citizens of the west, the debate on media regulation has, all of a sudden, gained relevance!

Not even the likes of Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Human Rights Watch will come forward to criticise the UK for ‘trumping upon media freedom’!

Paradoxically, three months after the government of Rwandan decided to entrust journalists with media regulation responsibilities, the UK seems poised to abandon media auto regulation, and back to a system that is closer to statutory regulation!

Whether this will provoke Kigali to revisit their own decision remains to be seen. Personally, I believe Rwanda understands the challenges of self-regulation.

Rwandans have suffered some of the worst effects of irresponsible journalism, and 17 years is such a short period to have forgotten.

Yet I believe the government’s decision was based on the realisation that we need a much stronger, freer and accountable media industry; one where peers are able to sit together, criticise and correct each other in good faith, for the good of the profession and the Rwandan people.

Such practices are not new to Rwandans. Both through the Gacaca courts and Abunzi (mediators) platforms, Rwandans seek to promote accountability, subject each other to peer oversight, and always arrive at decisions that enhance good neighbourliness.

Rwanda was one of the first two countries to subject themselves to NEPAD’s peer review mechanism, with the country graciously undertaking to implement the recommendations by a continental panel to promote good governance. 

In many ways, self-regulation suits our culture as a nation, a tradition that is anchored on the values of respect, integrity and honest.

As such, that self-regulation of the media is coming under intense scrutiny in the west does not necessarily mean that it cannot succeed in Rwanda or in Africa in general. 

The danger, however, is that African media are highly exposed to manipulation from the west, with the unceasing and biased interference from such groups as NGOs, which are increasingly gaining more voice in the way development partners relate with African countries.

Of course the onus is on the Rwandan media practitioners and owners primarily; they need to learn to connect with the people, seek to promote their aspirations, and above all, resist the temptation to practice this profession outside their country’s cultural and societal realities.

After all, the NOTW scandal has proven that it’s not about how long you’ve been in the trade, nor how large your audience is.

Rather how loyal you remain to the people; how you respect and serve them. And, above all, NOTW has taught us that we are all learners; no one should claim supremacy in this business of media freedom.

munyanezason@yahoo.com
On Twitter @JMunyaneza

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