A local media practitioner, last week, put the Media High Council (MHC) under the spotlight over tens of millions of Francs the Council spends on the annual media dialogue. He stated that such amounts can help four or five newspapers maintain a presence on the street for a couple of months, insinuating that, by spending it on unproductive ‘talk-shops’ and cocktails, the money practically goes down the drain, instead of leaving a mark on a needy sector.
He was speaking in reference to MHC’s initiative of hosting a media dialogue each year during which policymakers, business leaders, media practitioners, and experts, convene with a view to finding solutions to the various challenges facing the country’s media.
The third such event is scheduled to kick-off tomorrow, under the theme; “Building Capacities for Sustainable Media Development in Rwanda”, and several speakers have, yet again, been lined up to present papers. I personally do not believe that such forums amount to a waste of time. If nothing else, just the idea of labeling these gatherings ‘dialogues’ appreciates the fact that the challenges that face our media industry need to be addressed through a holistic approach. The dialogue serves as a platform to discuss the sector and somewhat create consensual understanding of what needs to be done to move forward. Such a public engagement itself is worth undertaking, since it means that everyone recognizes the problem, and that the solution will come only if all the stakeholders play their part.
Nonetheless, the idea is that such platforms should help find a solution for every identified problem, albeit one at a time. Last year’s dialogue discussed the need for more investments in the media, as one of the sectors with potential. Even John Gara, the CEO of Rwanda Development Board (RDB), spoke of that potential at the time, although he and the other RDB executives will hardly mention these opportunities in their unlimited marketing/promotion missions, or even have the media feature among the largely unexploited sectors on their banners!
Speaking on a local radio station on Saturday, Patrice Mulama, the Executive Secretary of the MHC, claimed most of the objectives of last year’s dialogue had been achieved, citing among others, the opening of four new radio stations, including the Nation Radio, which is expected to officially hit the waves in a few weeks time. He argued the Kenya-based Nation Media Group took the final decision to enter the local media scene during last year’s media dialogue. However, he also admitted that, one year on, the local media remained pretty much the same. I will go a step further and say that, on the ground, not much has changed since the first dialogue – in 2009. Now that is not very encouraging, by any standard.
It’s not that I am unaware of the pending media reforms – including at least four media-related draft laws that are currently before parliament. In truth, these reforms are hardly a direct outcome of the annual media dialogue, especially since at least two of the bills, were provoked by the cabinet’s decision to grant the media powers to regulate themselves, as opposed to the current statutory regulation. And the cabinet’s decision was obviously informed by other factors, other than the annual dialogue, considering that stalwarts at the MHC are known to have themselves initially dragged their feet, with regard to the self-regulation directive.
However, it is hard to explain exactly why there’s hardly anything to point to as a direct result of these dialogues – a far cry from what can be said of the famous Annual National Dialogue or Umushyikirano. When a particular public concern dominates discussions at Umushyikirano, Rwandans are sure that the issue will be sorted out, immediately after. We saw it in 2009 when the Girinka programme came under intense scrutiny, with revelations that local leaders had abused the programme by dividing up cows, meant for the poor, amongst themselves. By the time the next Dialogue came (2010), the problem had long been addressed. Similarly, last year’s Umushyikirano was dominated by mistakes committed during the anti-Nyakatsi campaign, and I am almost certain that the programme has since been streamlined and the overzealous local leaders reigned in. Such is how the media dialogue should be reviewed and managed – results-oriented.
What is clear is that the media dialogue lacks the profile and respect that the Umushyikirano enjoys. Not that the latter is constitutional or that is chaired by the Head of State himself, rather because it delivers results, contrary to the media dialogue. The other factor is that the National Dialogue is more representative and participatory, far more than the media dialogue, which pretty much remains an affair of certain media practitioners, as well as government organs and bureaucrats in charge of media issues. Save for the ministries in charge of information and ICT issues, the rest of the government members are hardly involved with the media dialogue, which is partly why the recommendations of these forums are unlikely to have any significant impact.
In essence, a dialogue should bring together more than one party. Yet, in reality, the media dialogue only brings together media practitioners and a handful of government personalities. The platforms lack the kind of ownership reminiscent of the annual Umushyikirano, and hardly embody the true meaning of a dialogue. My hope is that the resolutions of the third media dialogue will be treated differently.