I hate to admit that the Rwandan media industry is one of the least developed sectors in the country, but the writing is on the wall. How bizarre! It is not that we’re short of sufficient media outlets, particularly newspapers and radio stations – we have about 36 newspapers and about 24 radio stations – rather how these organizations go about their inherent responsibility of informing, educating and entertaining.
Perhaps apart from the entertainment bit, the local media’s performance remains agonizingly wanting and hugely disappointing. They do not frustrate only when it comes to upholding basic journalistic values of objectivity, accuracy and fairness, but also fail miserably in business sense.
Its public knowledge that the majority of the local print media hardly break-even. And most of them are used to this situation so much some of them will easily release public notices to the effect they’re unable to print their publication for a given period of time – ‘due to financial constraints’. For some, it is no longer a big deal to skip ten or so issues, without even bothering to inform the public! Many hardly hit the street, they only exist in name.
I recognize that external factors including the various political actors and the society, at large, are critical to the existence of a vibrant, enterprising media sector, but probably the greatest impediment to the growth of the local media, lie within the industry itself. No government or private businesses will spend sleepless nights mulling over how to create a pro-active media sector, knowing that that means increased demands for public accountability, on their part.
Yet democratic governments and the rest of society have nothing much to gain from a weak media industry, which is why they are expected to create an environment that helps foster professional and vibrant media.
Looking at the Rwandan media, today, I see an industry with unlimited potential but lacking courage, goodwill and business acumen to occupy their rightful place. In most cases, you can hardly draw a line between the media and government or anti-government elements (for lack of a better word, since the majority of these groups can hardly pass as genuine opposition). Ours are media outlets that are sharply polarized, not on matters of principle, but depending on which side, of the two extremes, one supports.
A quick perusal through most of our vernacular papers will show you how polarized and unprincipled the majority of them are. They routinely publish rumours without caring to verify, use defamatory language against officials and ordinary citizens alike, with little regard of the law, and show no signs of abating. They run opinionated stories and offer little to the readers.
And, lately, we have seen journalists upping from political fanatics to open propagandists, and political opponents. Last week, one of them organized what he called a ‘protest’ against President Paul Kagame’s presence in Australia, for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, and wrote and circulated a press release about the ‘protest’ in which he quoted himself and shared personal contacts for those looking for more information. Later, he ‘recycled a highly opinionated article, calling it a story about the ‘protests’. Incidentally, such a person goes around claiming he’s a journalist who fled Rwanda because of lack of freedom of expression!
While on one hand you have journalists and media outlets that are blindly playing in the hands of groups and individuals with violent designs against the country, on the other hand you have those who are simply obsessed with praising the government. With one block of the media on one end, and the other in the opposite extreme, an ever-increasing vacuum is stark – between the two extremes.
It’s unfortunate but, with no one apparently ready to bridge the vacuum – at least for the moment – the public will continue to be starved of enriching information. With such a situation, little can be expected from the impending law on access to public information.
That all this is happening in a nation that fares incredibly well in almost all other areas is a matter of serious concern, and one can only hope the trend will be reversed in the near future. I believe our media can still afford to strike a balance of opinion, without compromising their internal policies and business. Hopefully, next month’s national media dialogue will help set the tone for finding solutions to this predicament.Follow https://twitter.com/JMunyaneza