a journalist's perspective on the rwandan media

I recently spoke with a journalist from a major Rwandan newspaper. Upon meeting, he expressed that he was not comfortable speaking on the record (a revealing sentiment, of course). He explained that as a journalist, he rarely speaks with people he doesn’t know unless they’ve been recommended to him by trusted people. Without knowing someone well, particularly a foreigner (mzungu, as he put it), he is uncertain of, and somewhat skeptical about, that person’s motive. Assuming an ulterior motive (particularly by someone from the West) might be cultural, he suggested, but has absolutely been reinforced by the country’s recent history. After giving him a lot of information about what I have been doing in Rwanda, and assuring him that I’m simply interested in learning about his experience working in media, he agreed to have a conversation.

He spoke about how the public perception of media has been shaped largely by Rwanda’s history; specifically, the critical role media played in spreading genocide ideology. Because the press was utilized so effectively as a tool for hate, there is an entrenched distrust in the media, and a prevailing sentiment that the media is largely a conduit for negativity rather than positive change. With time, however, this is changing: people are coming to understand that the media can highlight, reveal, and comment on important issues in a manner that is productive and necessary. For example, if a journalist is able to point to an instance of government corruption through legitimate sources, this could promote changes in government operations that might strengthen the integrity of institutions and affect people in all levels of society. The public needs to see and understand the role of the media -- and this is slowly being cultivated. He believes that if a journalist writes from a balanced, well-researched perspective and has strong evidence – rigorous, high-quality work – he can speak “freely.”

The main issue in the media in Rwanda, he suggested, is a lack of professionalism. Journalists are poorly trained (or entirely untrained), and therefore produce biased, inconsequential, or slanderous stories often based on hearsay. The journalism training school is still quite young, and even trained journalists don’t perform with the level of rigor that today’s media environment necessitates. Because of this lack of professionalism, institutions have the responsibility to sort through problematic media and determine what is purporting rumors rather than truth. This, however, creates the impression that the government is violating freedom of the press. Such an accusation is overly simplistic, not considering the particularities of the media environment in Rwanda, and the fact that much of what is “reported” is in fact unsubstantiated and facile.

Of course, even very good journalists cannot say whatever they want, he expressed. Rwanda’s social and political environment is still highly sensitive, and it is western-centric to adopt a singular view of what defines freedom of the press. It doesn’t make sense for every kind of story, even blatantly divisionist or negationist stories, to make it to print. Perhaps self-censorship is an issue. However, another major problem is that few local journalists have the skill and depth of understanding to actually weigh what might be a story that is both responsible and constructive. Though the lines may be blurry, once must make distinctions between gossip, hate speech, and valuable criticism. And international critics must consider the complexity of this context before issuing blanket statements about censorship and violations of media freedoms – statements that do little to actually improve media in this country.