Why Rwandan journalists need to unionise?

Last week the Rwandan Journalists Association (ARJ) hosted a major workshop during which participants drew a roadmap for the association to transform into a labour movement or trade union.

Last week the Rwandan Journalists Association (ARJ) hosted a major workshop during which participants drew a roadmap for the association to transform into a labour movement or trade union.

The workshop was facilitated by experts from the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity (Solidarity Centre) as well as the Eastern Africa Journalists Association (EAJA), a grouping of journalists’ unions/associations from 13 countries, Rwanda inclusive.

The decision for ARJ to become a trade union was adopted by its members during a general assembly back in February. The move was prompted by ARJ’s admission as an Associate Member to the Brussels-headquartered International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) last year.

(Only a media body with a union status can become a full member of IFJ which enables it to vote or to be voted, and to exercise enjoy full membership rights).

But the benefits of a Rwandan media trade union are far more than just upgrading to full membership status at the IFJ. As an association, ARJ is naturally handicapped to address certain key challenges facing Rwandan journalists. Unfortunately, often times we tend to look at professional issues when one is assessing the media situation in Rwanda.

Professional issues such as freedom of the press, access to information, harassment of journalists, etc, constitute just a part of the milieu within which journalists operate. But they do not constitute the biggest threat to the media profession in Rwanda.

The biggest challenges facing our journalists come from within the industry itself. These are largely labour issues. Most journalists in Rwanda work without employment contracts, and those who have them often complain of breach of such contracts by their employers.

Many of them work for months without pay which make them more prone to unethical tendencies such as bribery and manipulation. A few go on leave, have no medical insurance or social security fund, and many are often sacked or demoted arbitrarily.

It is such an appalling situation that we have even had cases where some women journalists who have been sacked while still on maternity leave. Such is the gloomy picture of our newsrooms.

Yet even in the face of these daunting challenges, ARJ – as it is at the moment – has no teeth to bite. It has no legal authority to, say, serve as a platform through journalists can collectively bargain with their employers. And as such, it can hardly file a case in the courts of law against any such injustices committed against one of its members.

Consequently such structural/legal limitations have left each journalist struggling to cope in this hostile working environment single-handedly. That has gradually robbed journalists of their solidarity spirit.

In such a situation therefore if Rwandan journalists will legitimately agitate for better working conditions, the only way to go is to unionise. It is through a trade union movement that they will start to collectively engage media owners and employers on these pertinent issues.

It is largely because of this unique situation within which Rwandan journalists operate that participants in the last week’s workshop at Sportsview Hotel chose to form a craft-based professional union, other than an industry-based one as is the case in Senegal.

Given our particularities and from the experience of other EAJA members, the workshop also resolved that ours should be a union dedicated to both professional and labour issues, other than having two bodies – a union and an association – one charged with professional issues, and the other labour issues.

Journalists unions which are all all-encompassing have enjoyed enviable solidarity and success, where as experience from countries with two separate media bodies – one dedicated to professional issues and the other to labour issues – shows that there is constant rivalry between the two organs and disunity among journalists.

Already ARJ is taking precautionary measures to ensure that the move does not run into trouble with media owners right from the onset.

Whereas it might not be possible to take away the threat of employers and media owners – who will likely perceive the process as aimed at infringing on their ‘benefits’ –, it is important that a consensus is reached in the media fraternity that a trade union would be a better vehicle to advance journalists’ rights than the current association.

Media owners need not to view the move as a threat to their businesses, rather they should look at it in a broader perspective. Many owners will argue that they hardly make profits to pay salaries and cater for employees’ benefits.

Some will claim that they don’t get adverts from the Government, and that few of our corporate companies advertise once in a while. Some are even likely to become hostile, and could go extra-mile to intimidate their employees from joining the envisaged trade union.

But the same proprietors/employers will agree with me that a motivated journalist is likely to be more productive and professional at work than the one who is always unsure of whether he or she has a job the following day, or a salary at the end of the month.

Job insecurity is not good to an employee, neither to the business owner. It erodes employee’s commitment to work and as a result it hurts the owners’ business. And certainly the credibility of media owners/managers suffers most. In addition, such a situation is self-defeating.

You cannot legitimately start to demand for improvement in the freedom of the press when you personally are at the forefront of those who trump upon the basic rights of your own journalists.

How do you start to agitate for more access to information when you cannot even reasonably facilitate your journalist to go to the field, or when your journalists are starving because you have not paid them for the past six months?

Such a person has no moral platform from which he or she can start demanding the Government to do this and that. As a result your journalists will resort to arm-chair journalism, fabricating all sorts of news stories and distorting money from the public in return of a doctored story  or a cover-up.

You will continue to struggle to find news items for your radio station or newspaper because your reporters are suffering from the infamous ‘Giti’ syndrome, and therefore cannot leave workshops before receiving that brown envelop from a PRO since that is their day’s meal.

Or worse still your reporters will always report about conferences and workshops, a situation which will hardly please your audiences and could directly ruin your business interests.

Clearly no journalist, no media owner, not even the public would want to see such a situation. That’s why a trade union of Rwandan journalists is in the interest of all of us. And that’s why we should all pull our efforts together and realize this dream as soon as possible.

The writer is the First Vice President of Rwandan Journalists Association (ARJ)


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