Four major news websites announced last week that they were merging to operate as a single company in a move that has shaken the local news industry – bringing back a long standing debate as to whether Rwanda’s small economy has the capacity to absorb the explosion of media houses.
The sites Umuseke, Ukwezi, Bwiza and Umuryango have merged to form Ubumwe Media Group. Together, the four platforms could, if they manage to produce the right content and hold firm, eat up a large readership segment of the Kinyarwanda language readers – who could be more than 95 percent.
The latest development comes as Rwanda marks World Press Freedom Day, May 3.
RGB has been at the forefront of encouraging media mergers to ensure sustainability while there has been reservations from some media owners who argue that media houses have different beliefs and it’s difficult to merge with divergent interests.
As of end of 2018, the Rwanda Governance Board (RGB), one of the several agencies that monitor the media industry, had recorded 36 radio stations, 12 TV stations, 40 print newspapers (only four are regular) and magazines, and 80 news sites.
Some of the radio stations operate under the same roof─such as Flash TV/Radio, TV/Radio 10, TV1/Radio, Contact Radio/TV and Isango TV/Radio.
A study conducted by RGB shows that 42% of radio stations are owned by private individuals, 22% belongs to religious organizations, 22% are state funded FM stations, 11% are owned by NGOs while only 3% are owned by academic institutions.
Ubumwe Media Group team said in a statement that they were merging their property, financial operations and news collection. Contrary to previously where each attended a particular event, under the merger there will be a single reporter for a given news item.
The group has appointed a leader among them to act as the Group Managing Director. The four media houses will not move into one office – each will stay where they have been working. However, the managers of each platform will be meeting twice a week to strategize and share information about all operations.
“For example both government and private institutions send us invitations or press releases but you wonder if they ever consider the fact that the journalists need transport, yet those entities seeking our services have communications budgets,” said said Melchior Kayiranga, the owner of Bwiza Media Ltd.
“By coming together, we hope it will increase our bargaining power and thereby give value to our profession”, he added.
The merging team says each will maintain their editorial lines, which will be a challenge to them considering that a single news story on one platform could affect the business of the whole company.
Kayiranga added: “We will share content through story ideas discussed as a group but no platform will have influence over what is published in another. Our merger does not mean that Bwiza will adopt the editorial line of Umuseke or vice versa. Each platform will be free to run a story as they wish.”
It’s difficult to fathom how, with different editorial lines and management, this merge can thrive and grow as one entity.
For Alphonse Twahirwa, Editor-in-Chief of Flash FM and Flash TV, media mergers are not possible because each media has its own editorial line.
“Remember some media have huge resources while some have nothing. How can you expect the two to collaborate?” he said.
“If government wants to support media, it should find other ways of supporting them in their current form, instead of pushing for merging. It will take a very long time to realize media mergers in Rwanda.”
For Twahirwa therefore, this merge isn’t driven by the internalized self-interest of the owners and conviction – but expectation that government will support it.
Cleophas Barore, the Chairperson of Rwanda Media Commission (RMC), and a senior journalist at state broadcaster RBA says merging can be a challenge due to low skills of many journalists in the majority of the media houses.
The “First hindrance for media mergers is differing editorial lines,” he says and “Secondly, each media owner wants to eat alone whatever income they make. They think that coming together will reduce the profits. Each owner wants to manage their business as they wish.”
Barore says that the future of media is online and ability to publish in international languages in order to appeal to a global audience. Local media needs to engage regional counterparts to learn best practices of managing a successful media, he adds.
The idea of bringing media house together with the idea of maximizing their capacity has been around for years.
In December 2016, the Media Owners Forum was formed headed by Kakooza Nkuliza Charles popularly known as KNC, the proprietor of TV1 and Radio1.
The group also established a so called ‘Journalists Fund’ meant to be some sort of savings and support scheme for media practitioners. The fund was supposed to start five months after, but it is now 2019 and there is little sign of the Fund.
Peacemaker Mbungiramihigo, Executive Secretary of Media High Council, a government agency in charge of capacity building told The Chronicles in an interview this week that the Journalists Fund will start in May with over 100 journalists. He said they expect a membership of over 300 media practitioners.
The Rwanda Governance Board (RGB), also a government body, has committed to put Rwf 5million into the fund immediately it opens. Exact details of how the fund will operate are yet to be agreed upon. But some ideas have been floated; any media practitioner can be a member by owning shares. Each share will cost between Rwf 10,000 and 20,000. From this Fund, a member can borrow money for their personal use
Next week, according to Mbungiramihigo, the members who have signed up will meet to agree on the legal statute of the Fund.
He said: “Media practitioners who want to operate in isolation will not survive due to the fierce competition yet the market is small. However, I believe that having many media houses is not a problem. The issue is having many media which do not make any money.”
Some owners who spoke to The Chronicles but who did not want to be quoted said the market for advertising is dominated by media groups which get unofficial favours from government entities.
They also cited the dominance of RBA, a state funded agency, but which also competes for advertising revenue with the private media houses. Since it has the goodwill of the government, many private companies advertise with it as a way to win favours, some say.
The media owners also shared the call that RBA should be funded entirely by the state and leave the advertising market for private media houses.
Gerard Mbanda, Head of the Media Department at the Rwanda Governance Board (RGB), confirmed that the government was going to support the Journalists Fund once it becomes operational.
“That is a good idea,” he said. “They can save and get loans. The moment the Fund comes into operation, we have indicated that we will come in to work with the media to ensure it succeeds.”
One media mergers, Mbanda said: “In recent times, media revenues which have come mainly from advertisements are slowly drying away due to social media. The media companies that can come together are a welcome development so that they can put together their resources to be able to compete.”
The most recent RGB media status report shows that a vast majority of print and online media houses lack physical address, permanent offices and are poorly run.