May 25, 2021

Wrong’s Book and Mwenda’s Response Remind Us Who Our Elites Trust (Part 2)


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Last week, I discussed what Michela Wrong’s book and responses to it tell us about who our leaders trust. I argued that Wrong was able to write because she was trusted and given access by our former leaders now in exile and that, it’s due to her sources ─who held prominent positions in our country before falling on bad days that gave Wrong’s conclusions worldwide attention.

Correspondingly, I also pointed out that Ugandan journalist, Andrew Mwenda was also able to more convincingly address Wrong’s accusations than his Rwandan counterparts who attempted to do so because, like Wrong, Mwenda also had trusted access to our leaders than any of our journalists.

In this article, I explain why foreign journalists are trusted and given access by our leaders than native journalists; the source of this mistrust and the consequences of this to our nation.

Before delving into this conundrum, suffice to note that trust is a critical condition necessary for all beneficial relationships─whether social, economic, political or professional. Without trust, there can’t be meaningful cooperation, unity and collaboration that enable progress and defeat of human problems like poverty, disease, war, violent conflict, global warming and pandemics like COVID-19.

So, why are foreign journalists trusted to access the inner-thinking and workings of our top leaders and what informs their decisions than native journalists?

Remember, it’s not foreign journalists that are more trusted with access but also foreign researchers and academics. This suggests the problem is bigger than journalistic.

To understand this phenomenon, one needs to know that not every foreign journalist or researcher is trusted with access. Instead, only those vetted and considered intellectually able and capable of telling the story in a way favourable to our leaders or at least telling it objectively are given access. Those perceived to be “hostile” are excluded.

In that sense, the access our leaders accord foreign journalists and researchers has more to do with their goal and strategy to extend their power, influence and legitimacy beyond our borders than the tribe or race of these journalists or researchers.  

That also tells us that the reason foreign journalists, researchers and academics are trusted with access has something to do with what they do (storytelling); how they do it (ably and independently); where they do it (in independent and powerful media outlets) and the effect of what they do (influencing perception).

In other words, our leaders give access to foreign journalists and researchers because they believe they are intellectually able; that they have freedom to express themselves and tell the story they want to tell in their own countries without the fear of punishment and that the media outlets they work for are influential, and free to publish or air stories without being closed down or intimidated, impoverished or forced into exile.

Interpretively, you could say that our leaders give access to foreign journalists and researchers because they admire the cultural, ideological, institutional and technical ideals on which their societies are based and operate.

This is because, how journalists and media outlets operate depend on the margin of freedom they have gained through societal cultural norms and the ideological beliefs of the ruling party or elites. It’s these that determine whether or not institutions, including the media and journalists will be free to tell stories of their choice without fear of punishment or whether they will become subservient tools for the ruling elite.

Culturally and ideologically, foreign journalists come from societies where, for example, asking a leader something he/she would rather not be asked is considered virtues and rewarded; for, in those countries, leaders are considered accountable servants not “parents” as it is here or at least accommodate media freedom.

So, because our leaders also believe foreign journalists and media they work for to be free, powerful and influential, they give them access in the hope of influencing the world in their favour.

In that sense, trusting foreign journalists/media with access is not only acknowledging their ability and freedom to do their work without fear but also admitting the power and influence they wield in their own societies.

That also tell us that trusting foreigner journalists, researchers and academics with access is in the self-interest of our leaders and elites.

As we have written elsewhere, trusting foreign journalists and researchers isn’t limited to those who come calling at home but extends to giving one-on-one interviews to foreigners by our president that local journalists only dream of.

Objectively, this trust extends to other fields─with our president regularly touring foreign universities and colleges giving lecturers just as the Presidential Advisory Council is dominated by foreigners─to tap into their perceived knowledge, expertise, networks and deep-pockets.

And, of course, as those who follow goings-on in the halls of power will know, some of our most important institutions─like Rwanda Development Bank (BRD), the University of Rwanda (UR), Rwanda Development Board (RDB), Rwanda Social Security Fund (RSSB), Bank of Kigali (BK), Rwanda Energy Group, et cetera are chaired or led by foreigners.  

Tellingly, the reasons why foreign journalists and researchers are trusted with access also explain, in reverse, why our leaders neither trust nor give the same kind of access to their fellow countrymen and women in the media and research.

And the low trust and confidence our leaders have for our journalists, researchers and academics is historical and rooted in some persistent socialized cultural norms, ideological underpinnings of our political system and the institutions and citizen these have given us. 

Let us explain:

In pre-colonial times, it wasn’t considered virtues for citizens (subjects!) to question or criticize a leader/king. Historians agree that the Mwami (King) was Nyagasani (God-like) who was unquestionable with commonly socialized sayings such as Irivuzwe Umwami (whatever the King says is true) and he owned everything in the Kingdom on behalf of his subjects with all power vested in him delegating it at will.

And as I have argued elsewhere, in pre-colonial times, citizens/subjects who were assigned to carry the King’s message─known as “Abamotsi” (those who bark─equivalent to today’s journalists) were not expected to change or alter in any way the message they were carrying except deliver it as originally intended.

When we embraced “modernity” in the form of laws, western education, institutions, democratic ideals, elected officials and the press, the change was largely in form rather than substance. As Gerard Prunier has argued, our first President, Grégoire Kayibanda acted as the new “Mwami” (King) and, his successor, Juvenal Habyarimana became the “Parent” rather than a servant.

And when modern media was introduced in 1933 with the birth of Kinyamateka, and later Radio Rwanda, these weren’t started to hold power to account as liberal teachings say nor inform and educate the citizenry about what leaders do or don’t do in their name. The former was started to propagate the one “truth” of God according to Catholic doctrines while the latter informed peasants about the “vision” of “rubanda Nyamwinshi” propagated by their new Mwami-leader without question.

Both Kinyamateka and Radio Rwanda projected the Single Story─of One God for Catholics and Kayibanda, (and later, Habyarimana) the “Saviour”. During that time, as is now, you couldn’t defend the God of Moslems in Kinyamateka nor could you defend Kayibanda’s opponents on Radio Rwanda. That remains largely true today.

This cultural and ideological logic hasn’t changed despite media laws and political rhetoric proclaiming media and journalistic independence. Today, leaders are still referred to as “parents” and so is government and the role of the media believed to be serving the purposes and ends of the “Parent”-leader and government.

I have interviewed and discussed with many editors, media owners, academics and journalists in the past 20 or so years but have never met anyone who says there is media freedom in the country; although many wouldn’t say it on record and in their name.

Over the years, journalists and media outlets have been socialized to tell, in a subservient manner, the single story of top leaders and the ruling party. Those who have objected have either been forced into exile or impoverished with no capacity to make any meaningful difference.  

So, why should leaders give trusted access to journalists and media outlets that are not only already promoting their vision without question but whose influence doesn’t go beyond our borders or Rwandans?

For as already noted, leaders don’t give trusted access to journalists out of benevolence but self-interest and belief that the journalist in question is not only intellectually able but also free to air/publish and influence the public.

In broader terms, to give trusted access to our journalists and researchers would be to acknowledge their intellectual power, freedom and ability to influence without the fear of punishment. That’s not what our leaders desire; they see it as threatening to their concentration and monopoly of substantive power.

To that extent, we could say, the reason our journalists and researchers aren’t trusted is the same as why our elites have, since the days of the monarchy to date have viciously fought each other: power! It’s seen in zero-sum terms such that when one has it; others don’t!  

Thus, not trusting local journalists, researchers, and writers is about control of knowledge, truth and power—giving them trusted access and freely allowing them to define goings-on in their own words would confer power and influence to them─ as is the case, indeed, with Wrong. Controlling access to them is to control information and since information is power, our leaders refrain from entrusting natives with that kind of power.

The consequence of lack of trusted access to our journalists and researchers and freedom to cover and report truthfully is enormous. Next week, we turn to this.

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