Deciding press freedom – Kagame’s meat, Harper’s poison?

The Canadian Association of Journalists this year awarded Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office with its not so prestigious - ‘Code of Silence Award’ for 2007.

The Canadian Association of Journalists this year awarded Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office with its not so prestigious - ‘Code of Silence Award’ for 2007.

In a statement announcing the award, CAJ President Mary Agnes Welch, said; “Harper’s white-knuckled death grip on public information makes this the easiest decision the cabal of judges has ever rendered.”

“He’s gone beyond merely gagging cabinet ministers and professional civil servants, stalling access to information requests and blackballing reporters who ask tough questions.

He has built a pervasive government apparatus whose sole purpose is to strangle the flow of public information.”

A shameful position Harper finds himself in given that Canada is a leading wealthy, developed nation with a well developed media; (that enjoys decades of uninterrupted investment, both human and capital). Canada is classified as a democracy.

The above juxtaposed with Africa’s Rwanda, a poor struggling, developing country emerging out of multi-layered crises; of governance and ethnicity spanning over decades, makes an interesting but instructive analysis.

Interesting in the sense that often when issues of press freedom are discussed, it is poorer countries under much scrutiny – get me right, not absolving certain culprits; such as Zimbabwe as I write the fate of the arrested editor of the ZCTU’s , The Worker, Ben Madzimure, is not known.

For Rwanda in order to determine progress in media freedom and diversity, the most compelling starting point is the media as at ‘94 during the genocide, then during transition (healing and justice phase) to the current phase.

There is both a historic and current context.

Under the dictatorship before the genocide the only media present, both print and electronic served the exclusive interests of the MRND; leading to their complicity in fanning flames of genocide through ‘hate-speech.’

The Arusha based International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) subsequently tried three senior journalists on charges of genocide; incitement to genocide and crimes against humanity; these are

Ferdinand Nahimana and Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza who were in charge of Radio Télévision Libre de Mille Collines, and Hassan Ngeze, director and editor of the newspaper Kangura.

Nahimana and Ngeze were imprisoned for life (reduced to 30 and 35 respectively on appeal) and Barayagwiza for 35 (reduced to 32) years.

­This being evidence of a historical context.

It is this vein that I want to further locate my argument in search of clarity on the basis upon which the state of the media in Rwanda today; is defined and subsequently judged.

Given that the media went through those years of massacres, the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), came into power in the absence of a foundation upon which to build a media (both print and electronic), compounded by a sensitive transition, coupled with the involvement  in the DRC war.

A foundation Rwanda has painstakingly had to build to get where she is today.

How therefore can we measure whether Rwanda’s media is progressing or is still stuck in the primitive past of censorship, hate speech and arbitrary arrests?

Thursday offered me an opportunity to reflect further on this question.

Every once a month Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, holds live press briefings at ‘Village Urugwiro’, his offices; invited are journalists from all media houses – both print and electronic. The president answers questions live on air.

I joined fellow editors from my paper to this event. Now Presidential briefings are important events, giving journalists the opportunity to ask questions on pressing issues of national importance.

Issues for us journalists (at least 50 of us, including international press I could pick out, Reuters, BBC and VOA) at the briefing included; the September legislative elections, Kigali city demolitions and Rwanda’s peacekeeping operations in Darfur.

The event was an eye opener.

Now in my over a decade, as a journalist I have attended many a press briefings held by presidents, politicians, in Europe the USA and here in Africa.

These at times are controlled events in terms of content and time. Brief questions quick responses it ends there.

Some countries even go further to gag journalists; or to censor to their own desires the content of the briefs, covering issues that suit them Others will invite to their media briefings only selected friendly journalists from preferred media houses.

This is why in my own naivety, I found the ‘Village Urugwiro’ briefings fascinating, especially if it is agreed that our most important role as journalists is to hold those who lead us to account.

In this regard, journalists on air get to ask questions to their hearts content; all whispered-about stuff, from wild gossip to real serious matters.

PresidentsKagame responds to each and every question, for at least three hours. Leaving little room for spin.
It is a public accountability ritual not confined to the interpretation of journalists themselves but the public too.

Kagame’s cabinet ministers performance is questioned and if the minister in question is there,  the question is directed to them and they respond. Non performing politicians have been exposed this way.

Looking at the average age of Rwandan journalists in the newsroom, they are young at least aged 25; most of the mature experienced journalists including myself are foreign.

This context has to be understood within the reconstruction efforts in Rwanda post the 1994 genocide. All sectors rely on outside expertise and experience for development, the media included. I have met South-Africans here working in the construction industry and so on.

If you are talking of decades of an absolute dictatorship that culminates in the genocide, in which sadly the media is also brutally massacred- journalists were either killed or incited killings landing them in jail today.

Those who were in exile are coming back slowly but also need to study their environment.

There is hope for Rwanda to further develop her media, given the influence from her east African colleagues with visible media vibrancy.

We get every morning here government critical papers from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. On my cell phone radio I can tune into 20 radio stations, local, regional and international.

In July the first Rwanda Editors Forum (REFO) was launched with Jean Bosco Rushingabigwi, the director of the Great Lakes Media School elected as chair. Journalists have also recently adopted their own media ethics and regulations during the forthcoming national elections.

Perhaps as a journalist coming out of Zimbabwe’s hostile media environment I may be too lenient on Rwanda, how about it REFO chair we start our very own ‘Code of silence’ award; we being the judges to whom press freedom is meat or poison!

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