In countries where public entities keep things hidden almost as a matter of government policy, media acquires celebrity status for spearheading the cause of openness. Serving as a monitor on authority is high among the free media missions. It is common for media to act as the link between the people and those in power. Not in Rwanda, as we are about to see.
If the powerful entities are keen on conducting self-accountability, that does not necessarily render the media irrelevant. But it can significantly lower its standing in a particular society from the watchdog point of view. This exact scenario is the very reason in Rwanda the media rarely returns to a hero’s welcome whenever it goes out on a mission to uncover abuse of power, misuse of public resources or lawlessness of any kind.
Whether it is by default, or by design, Rwanda happens to remain under the spotlight, either for what it has or has not done. Careful observation of the situation around the region reveals that offences which organizations like Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders accuse Kigali of are committed at a similar or larger scale in the neighborhood. But let not comparison be the purpose.
Rwanda long developed a thick skin
The Government of Rwanda has in the process of being under constant unprincipled attack developed a thick skin. Not only has Government learnt to ignore the perennial lowest ranking by Reporters Without Borders for example, but it has gone on to forge a relationship with the local Media that allows each side to be fine with the other, in a good way. The media is not up in arms. Instead, it has been up in fruitful engagement with policy makers.
Case in point. In a celebratory statement released on the 30th of September 2018, Rwanda Journalists Association – ARJ – highlighted that Government had “…officially decriminalized general defamation and press offences with the gazetting of the penal code – Law No. 68/2018 of 30/08/2018 on 27 September 2018.” ARJ went on to say that it “…recognizes this very important step by the government of Rwanda as it is another major reform in expanding freedom of the press and free expression in general”.
This major milestone in the Rwandan Media evolution process was a culmination of what started on the 6th of November 2009 inside a conference hall on the 6th Floor of Umubano Laico Hotel in Kacyiru – Kigali. On that day, a partnership initially called the ANNUAL MEDIA AND GOVERNMENT DIALOGUE, renamed a year later to become till this day the renown National Media Dialogue, was born.
The NMD has been held every end of year since then, under a different theme whenever it rolls. But surprisingly Government and Media have not deviated from the core meaning of the theme of that maiden dialogue, stated as “In Partnership to promote Media Freedom and Responsible Journalism in Rwanda”. The theme ended up being the mission, and we can only laud the now defunct Media High Council and its first executive secretary and promoter of media freedom, Mr. Mulama Patrice, for looking far ahead.
Sweeping media reforms were not without victims
There after a series of historical policy decisions were made. Most significant among them was a basket-full of changes delivered in one go. This was the time we saw the scrapping of MININFOR (Ministry of Information) and ORINFOR (Rwanda Office of Information), followed by the creation in their place of the Office of Government Spokesperson (OGS) and Rwanda Broadcasting Agency (RBA), respectively. It was then too that the popular Access to Information Law was enacted, together with a new Media Law that captured all these changes to enable their operationalization from a legal framework point of view.
In the process of all these changes, the initiator of it all, Media High Council, lost its ‘front teeth’ – regulation. Before then it was an effective media regulator and a reluctant builder of sector capacities. But by close of this sweeping Government reform agenda, MHC had lost regulation of the broadcasting side of media to Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA) and RBA. The organ also gave away regulation of the written press to the journalists’ self-regulatory body.
By February 2013, a new organ in the name of Rwanda Media Commission (RMC) had been set up to administer the affairs of the self-regulation on behalf of media industry practitioners. Then jointly between media and government as backed by law, it was upheld that media-related complaints shall thereafter always be handled by RMC and in other cases through civil restitution. So far so good.
The arrangement has been an effective mechanism for checking the problem of journalism excesses on one hand, while on the other it has done commendably serving as the buffer between the imperfect journalists and some overzealous powerful office bearers who find it hard to stomach ‘unfair’ criticism. Progress has been satisfactory as attested to by ARJ in that release of 30th September 2018 on decriminalization of general defamation. The association called “…on the public to continue utilizing the so far successful media self-regulation in arbitrating concerns arising from journalists’ work”.
What the west calls muzzling is mutual trust in Rwanda (bakunda byacitse)
Muzzling of the Press and suppression of human rights is what Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch call this growing mutual trust between government and media. Seen through the lenses of these western world so called rights watchdogs, relative peaceful coexistence between media and government equates to lack of freedom (bakunda byacitse, ari na yo mpamvu bikuriyemo akabo karenge bimaze kuducikana mu wa 1994).
They uphold a similar verdict on consensual democracy practiced in Rwanda, including in Parliament where the ruling RPF and the opposition legislate together hassle-free. Viewed from the western point of political discourse, this is nothing but plain dictatorship. Not that they do not know better, but rather because treating it rationally would be a departure from their policy of holding us under their repressive knee to keep our breathing difficult. Development Partners they are, supposedly.
To the regular dialogue between Government and Media, and the consensus democracy now quite entrenched in Rwanda, add the commendable score by Government in ridding national institutions of corruption and the ever-growing efficient use of public resources. These only few out of more ways, dissimilar to others elsewhere, because situations are not similar, are known as Rwanda’s UBUDASA (dissimilarity) in Kinyarwanda.
Government efficiency helped by the RPF anti-corruption whip
According to the Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 Report, Rwanda with a score of 54/100 comes fourth in Africa after Seychelles (66), Botswana (60), and Cabo Verde (58). For this alone, it is reasonable to assume that Rwandan Media does not have as much to hold Government accountable for compared with other countries on the continent. Plus, the uncompromising hold of the anti-corruption whip by the ruling RPF against its leaders, not leaving out the rank and file as well, constantly feeds into government effort to raise efficiency standards.
The unintended effect on media is that it leaves outlets with little to unearth. There is quite some stamina, you know, inside government institutions to proactively check and expose any malpractices before scribes’ sniff at anything smelly.
All this leaves us with a unique and interesting story to tell. In Rwanda it is common for government to expose corruption to the public through media instead of Media uncovering corruption inside government and exposing it to the public. Now you also know why media in Rwanda is starved of celebrity status. Reason is that government is so open, with almost nothing to hide. This leaves the media with nothing to expose to the public and be cheered up.
And because this UBUDASA irritatingly baffles Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch (since the ethos does not originate from the west), the media watchdog pays back by perennially ranking Rwanda above 150. The nation moves on, along with its Rwandan media. But RSF and HRW have not noticed yet. Birabareba (it looks them).
About the author: Kabagambe Rwiyemaho Ignatius is the Head of Corporate Communications at the University of Rwanda.