A free press and the free flow of information are essential to Rwanda’s vision of a country of empowered citizens, in a dynamic knowledge economy.
In Rwanda we are fortunate to have a vibrant radio industry; 19 radio stations in a country of ten million, mostly privately owned.
But making one’s way in print journalism is tough in a country where radio is king and where there has been little culture of reading. Low levels of readership means low advertising revenues, which means high cover prices which, it turn, results in low levels of readership -- a self perpetuating cycle.
The journalists who act as publisher, editor and reporter for their papers face a daily struggle to get their paper on the street.
As our country develops and becomes more educated and prosperous some of these dedicated journalists will find things getting easier. Until then, the government is supporting media development by providing training through the Great Lakes Media Centre, where working journalists with little or no formal training have the opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills relevant to their careers.
Certainly, part of the reason for the lack of training, professionalism and low level of ethics in the media is the fact that attention to this sector was not a priority immediately following the genocide.
I mention all this because according to some observers, the main challenge journalists’ face in Rwanda is not economic, and cultural but political.
Time and time again we are told that in Rwanda there is no media freedom, no space for comment, no room for criticism. It is incredible how far from reality this is.
Whether in the electronic or printed media, Rwandans have at their disposal every day a wide range of news and opinions, from pro-government voices to persistently hostile and sometimes abusive views.
A cursory glance through the pages of Rwandan newspapers will show how loud the independent press screams out criticism -- a snapshot of the current situation in Rwanda’s media can be found on the government website.
In the last few weeks the press has accused the government of creating insecurity for political reasons, harassing the opposition, corruption, nepotism, of manipulating the justice system, employing criminals etc.
It is not comfortable for me to repeat these unfair criticisms -- it is the exact opposite of my job as government spokesperson -- but I do because it is there in black and white for people to see that journalists have freedom to criticize.
Political opponents of the current administration inside and outside Rwanda air their voices many times a day on radios that broadcast in almost every village in Kinyarwanda, the language understood by even the most modest citizens.
My government is working relentlessly to expand access for Rwandans to broadband internet, including in rural areas. This will permit them to download faster those reports denouncing their restrained access to information.
In Kigali’s bookstores, citizens and visitors will find any book on Rwanda they want in English, French or Kinyarwanda, even those written by authors who claim that their voices cannot be heard inside the country.
New releases, including those bitterly opposing the government, are often first popularized in the country before they become internationally known.
Some professional critics refuse to understand that Rwanda has moved on. They ignore or try to conceal the robustness of debate in the media in Kinyarwanda.
They also ignore the fact that occasionally journalists commit crimes as private individuals, crimes unconnected to their work, for which they are held to account by the legal process, just as any citizen would.
It is important to note that despite our tragic past and even with the laws prohibiting hate media that fuelled the destruction of the country (laws, by the way, like those adopted in other countries, following similar periods of violence, that today are widely seen as strongly democratic), for more than three years my government has not leveled any action against individual journalists or media house for an opinion. When a journalist writes that a section of the population should go back to ‘where they come from before they disappear’ like one did in February 2007, echoing almost word for word the hate media that fueled the genocide, we make no apologies for acting.
Debate and dissent is essential to Rwanda’s future. Irresponsible journalism must remain a part of our past.
On the ground, the situation and the performance of media in Rwanda is steadily improving but this trend needs to and should be accelerated through further improvement in professional standards, removal of barriers to investment, and strengthening of the capacity and confidence of our journalists.
At the same time, it is essential that people understand that our critics make accusations in a vacuum, with little regard for the role of media in historical atrocities.
As media in Rwanda evolves, we are working diligently to ensure freedom of expression and speech with the highest standards of journalistic ethics as part of our country’s bright future.
Louise Mushikiwabo is the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Government Spokesperson.