May 13, 2020

Building a Fearless Media (Part 1)

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May 3, 2020, the World marked press freedom day with an exciting theme of Journalism without fear or favour. The ongoing covid-19 pandemic meant that the there wasn’t much to celebrate since the media sector, like many other parts of the global economy, is facing hardships. Authoritarians are also using the chance to suppress rights in some countries.

Like every year, actors on Rwanda debated the extent of or lack of press freedom prevailing in the country. One journalist wondered on Twitter whether journalism without fear or favour was possible in Rwanda. In the ensuing exchange someone wrote that there is “nothing like journalism in Rwanda” or “it is under strict control of the RPF regime”. I certainly disagree with these statements given their extremity, and that they undermine the work of many dozens of hardworking journalists and media managers I know around. 

Usually, several factors are pointed out when analysing the subject. These include the political and legal framework, professional skills and financial independence of media outlets. The legal framework has improved vastly over the last decade.

Two years ago, after a long campaign by journalists, press offences and defamation were finally decriminalised. The earlier reforms led to Access to Information law and self- regulation though it is now co-regulation in practice.

The often cited Reporters without Borders (RSF) rankings put Rwanda at position 155 out of 180 countries, as has been the past year. Strangely, the report cites the revision of the penal code in 2018 stating that “an overhaul of the penal code in 2018 did not reform prison sentences for journalists convicted of insult or defamation”.

RSF also claims that the media law of 2010 is oppressive. This is far from the truth, the Media law in use is one of 2013, and having participated in the process that led to it, and have debated proposed amendments to it, the law is progressive and there isn’t much that needs to change.

The process that revised the penal code in 2018 was an exciting time and journalists achieved most of what they lobbied for. The whole chapter on press offences was eliminated, general defamation, defamation of the President of the Republic and cartooning politicians – were all scrapped either by parliament or court ruling.

As someone who participated deeply in the process, attending negotiations with top government officials and parliamentary sessions, in one meeting as it had been previously sought, the informed message from the President was ‘give journalists what they want’ – this was confirmed when his office issued a statement that there was no need to give the President a privilege different from other leaders, after a Supreme Court ruling had maintained the bad article.

Legal issues are not solved forever. Example of journalists in prison is of three young men of Iwacu TV who were arrested in 2018, prosecution has severally amended the charge sheet. Now trial is set for sometime in 2022. Imagine if they are acquitted they would have been on remand for four years. Being on lookout for innovative detectives and prosecutors is a must.

State policy regards media as an open business environment, therefore is easy to launch a company and register a media house. The ease of entry and exit should ensure plurality.

However, most media businesses don’t make money to ensure financial independence given the tough media market. Print journalism has largely disappeared, replaced by a much more vibrant online media.

The media landscape generally reflects the political and economic situation in the country. Journalists can’t create sources and since the political class active in Rwanda is pursuing the politics of consensus, the absence of open competition has meant the media lacks out on the important political market. No politician will buy ad space or airtime, hire a well funded communications team with a budget because they don’t need it to get and maintain power.

Self censorship is accurately marked to exist. Lack of scrutiny of the President, important ministries and security services, is often cited as an example of media fearing to touch the powerful. I think, to a degree President Kagame and the army are not visibly criticized in local media because they enjoy a high degree of reverence given their historical role as national liberators and architects of development. The element of fear and lack of credible sources is another factor, journalists must work to overcome this. 

While the media law strongly protects journalistic sources, there are continued attempts to coerce journalists to reveal their sources. Despite this, journalists who have stood their ground have been left alone with no case proceeding to court. This is an area where strong legal and solidarity support is necessary.

Also there are some mid-level state operatives who have taken it upon themselves to claim to represent the voice of the “system” and tried to intimidate, censor and cajole journalists. Serious editors have pushed them away but many others don’t have the self-confidence and knowledge to do so. These enemies of free press are defeatable, the only policymaker that matters has made clear where he stands.

Despite the obvious challenges, there are opportunities that a vanguard force of journalists and media entrepreneurs must utilise to actualise the space provided by policy and law. It will not be done by anybody else.

Twitter @ibiriti

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