There are certain elements who have taken on the habit of castigating our media industry for what they claim to be mediocrity, one that attracts only characters who have failed to make it in other cycles of life.
Some of Rwanda’s critics have even gone ahead to scoff at government saying the existing situation is a result of state inspired crackdown on press freedom.
I want to look at the issue of media from two perspectives, that is, from the journalists themselves and then from the point of view of media owners.
Firstly, it’s important to appreciate that some of the problems we see in our media today are inherited from a fragile political path that not only Rwanda has gone through but rather one shared across the entire African continent.
Isaac Blankson author of the journal on “Media Independence and Pluralism in Africa” traces and attributes the weakness of Africa’s media on the never ending political unrest that emerged on the continent immediately after independence.
Emphasising that the civil unrest in much of Africa during the post independence period sped up the decline in “quality and quantity” of the media, Blankson says the aftermath continues to shape the character of much of today’s media landscape on the continent.
For example for the past 25 years of Africa’s independence, a total of 70 leaders in 29 African nations were deposed through assassinations, coups and purges.
Out of the 41 independent African countries, only 7 allowed political opposition, 17 were one-party state and another 17 were military regimes. Forty four (44) nations experienced 20 major wars and 40 successful coups between 1957 and 1981.
Therefore in response to the high incidences of political uncertainties governments instituted a variety of state sponsored repressive policies against the media, Blankson argues.
This harassment eventually resulted into “self –imposed censorship” by the media practitioners that in the end affected the freedom and quality of media.
Now coming back to our own situation, this argument is quite relevant and valid. For Rwanda, on top of the political dictatorship that had a free ride for decades, the media was subjected to a repressive system similar to the Soviet Communist theory of the press.
Just like the soviets, media in Rwanda served the role of “collective propagandist, collective agitator and collective organisers.” In other words, there was no place in our system for the press to be seen as a clear and independent mirror of events.
It always worked under the armpits of the ruling party conveying its political gospel.
As events changed elsewhere in Africa especially during the early 1990s when a new wave of democracy began sweeping across the continent, our country was plunged into an abyss of political madness not matching the modern time.
The resultant mess was a Genocide that only served to worsen an already fragile media landscape. The consequences of this Genocide on the press are well documented.
But particularly, the Genocide created two extreme and distinct classes of journalists in our society.
On the one extreme end is a group riding on the wheels of “self censorship” while on the other is a group pumped-up by what I would describe as the “ghosts” of Kangura and RTLM.
While the former tends to be docile and ‘impotent’ in fulfilling the watchdog role, the latter are plagued by a lack of professionalism.
They abuse their independence in a manner that stands contrary to the democratic principles or ideas for which they claim to be fighting.
The mechanism in which this segment of journalists presents its arguments stretches the bounds of tolerance to the point where hatred appears to define the relationship between them and the government.
While some push a biased political agenda, others unduly insult or fabricate false stories, which definitely contravenes journalistic code of ethics. As if that is not enough, this group has shown a blatant disregard for the rule of law.
However, and most important, the biggest cancer undermining our media’s growth is not entirely a lack of professionalism but rather the failure on the part of media owners to run the sector as a corporate business.
Many media outlets of this country are run like brief case companies. They operate from makeshift newsrooms with hardily any business plans and a vision for the future.
In other words there’s no urge to build a household brand that competes in the market place with powerful brands like Primus, Coke or MTN.
The logic is simple. Just as a telecom company working in competitive environment adopts cheaper, attractive and innovative products to penetrate the market, so must a competitive media landscape be.
But to stimulate this competition, we need to adopt the Tawain strategy.
Pluck off the historical feathers of the earlier alluded to communist theory and embrace a combination of the libertarian and social responsibility theories.