June 8, 2021

Wrong’s Book and Mwenda’s Response Remind Us Who Our Elites Trust (Part 3)

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This is the third and last article explaining why our leaders give trusted access to foreign journalists than our own and its consequences. The first part discussed what Michela Wrong’s book and responses to it tells us about who our leaders trust and the second clarified why foreigners tend to be trusted with explicit access than their local counterparts.

As I explained, giving more access to foreigner journalists than local ones has nothing to do with race, ethnicity/tribe, nationality or love but power and how our leaders understand it, gain it, exercise it, project it and reproduce it within and outside our borders.

I argued that foreigners are given access because leaders believe their media to be independently powerful, influential and could therefore be used to project their power, legitimacy and influence outside our borders.

On the other hand, locals aren’t give access, principally because, doing so would be acknowledging their separate and independent power to hold leaders accountable yet their media outlets are nurtured to be subservient to the will of leaders and are already telling their story as they want it told and, in that sense, no need to give them access to the inner thinking, fears and decision-making process that goes into practical actions that affect our politics, economy and foreign policy.

In other words, not trusting local journalists, researchers, and writers with access serves to control all power, knowledge and what constitutes “truth” by leaders.

In this article, I discuss the consequences of this phenomenon to our public discourse, politics, journalists, researchers, the academic and the institutions they work for and represent.

Broadly, the consequences are far-reaching and crippling to our development trajectory, freedoms and the quest for democracy.

Let’s explain.

First, our journalists, writers, and researchers aren’t nurtured and empowered to be globally competitive and tell our nation’s story. In the process, our story ends up being largely told by foreigners─often in a distorted or controversial manner.

As a result, most of our journalists, writers and researchers have remained provincial and only a few have managed to intellectually develop and have influence beyond our borders. In part, that is why even responses to Wrong’s book from internal writers has been minimal and penned by those at the margins of power.

Correspondingly, our media houses, research and academic institutions are weak and lack the requisite freedom, resources and professional cooperation needed to be competitive and shape our public discourse or contribute solutions to challenges our nation face.

In the process, media houses and research institutions have largely stunted and none has influence beyond our borders. In fact, as I have argued elsewhere, despite embracing modern education more than 100 years ago, beyond ordinary teaching, there is nothing we have contributed to scientific discovery or innovation; we have only been consumers.

Yet, as history shows, human beings were able to conquer disease; discover vaccines and cures for diseases; overcome widespread poverty, tame nature, discover new worlds, and land man on the moon only after the scientific revolution over than 500 years ago when leaders accepted that they didn’t have the monopoly of knowledge leading to what historian Yuval Noah Harrari calls the “discovery of ignorance” that allowed leaders to accept independence of scientists and cooperating with them to find solutions to human problems like disease, etc.

In Rwanda, while we embraced formal institutions and rituals of education─schools, teachers, research institutions, universities and media houses, in practice, these institutions lack the freedom, power and empowerment to decide what constitutes scientific or journalistic truth. I know a university professor, for example, who was banned from ever doing any consultancy because he interpreted gini-Coefficient to a degree a minister of finance didn’t like! 

For the media, as a 2017 Pax Press research Report shows, rarely do media houses focus on policy issues or investigative stories. Instead, many focus on conference and meeting generated stories and reporting what happens at the lower-lungs of power.

Over the years, media houses that have attempted to tell stories objectively and do investigative reporting have been silenced and their journalists forced into exile or run out of the profession.

In this vein, let’s share The Chronicles’ Story that we know best. When the newspaper was launched in 2011, it was, by 2012, vibrant. But then started getting serious challenges emanating from denying it access to the market by known state functionaries, spreading malicious rumours that it was funded by foreigners or enemies of the state and certain state institutions funded known media outlets to snatch its journalists as a strategy to derail its growth. But these tricks could be contained.

Then, in 2012 our investigative journalist, Idriss Gasana Byiringiro was kidnapped and wasn’t seen for days. When he reappeared, he shared his ordeals and we wrote to relevant authorities requesting for investigations to find and punish culprits. Instead, within a day of police launching investigations, the journalist was imprisoned and denied access to family, colleagues and a lawyer. At the same time, several times, I was also interrogated by CID until we temporary closed down the paper in 2013. When we did that, our troubles went away and the cases were abandoned!

Today, debate of some important national issues are driven from outside and our journalists do reactionary reporting and often get to know important news when leaders talk to foreign media.

This lack of access is sometimes embarrassing and caused by insecurities by middlemen and women who control access to the president. I remember in 2012 when we were overseeing the visit of a group of American journalists and our editor was their main guide to different institutions. One afternoon, as these journalists were boarding the bus to go meet the president, I received a phone call from the head of communications at the presidency informing me that only visiting journalists would be allowed to meet the president!

I informed the lady that denying our editor access would look bad and damage our national image before the visitors. She was adamant. Baffled, I took our editor aside and broke the story that neither he nor me would be allowed into the presidential conference room. He laughed me out of my outrage saying: “I know the insecurities of some of our people; the lady wants to take credit, there is no way she would allow us in”.

Now that our editor was understanding, the next thing was how to break the story to our visiting journalists! What was I to tell them? That they are allowed to meet our president but not us? Somehow, I found the explanation!

Interestingly, after our journalists and independent thinkers and writers even from within the same the government are disempowered, our leaders hire western firms and a few media houses to “tell their side of the story” whenever there is bad publicity at colossal sums of money! Meanwhile, at home, rhetorically, “locals” are fed on the rhetoric of why “We Rwandans and Africans must tell our own stories”!

Consequently, most journalists and media houses are emaciated and brought low by poverty and small money they get from multiple power centers within government that require them to promote voices of their leaders without question and, in the process, many have lost credibility to influence public opinion beyond our borders.

In part, that is why there is barely a media house or journalist credible enough to respond to Michela Wrong’s claims; and this has nothing to do with capacity as some claim, but a system that disempowers its own citizens to think freely, express themselves free and reward independent thought. To survive financially, everyone dances to the tune of power-brokers who promote a single voice told by leaders in a manner of their choosing.

Thus instead of media independently holding power to account, informing and educating the public about things done or not done in their name, the media tells the citizenry only what leaders want them to hear.

In the process, the relationship the RPF-led government has created with the media, journalists, bloggers and the academia is neither based on respect for professionalism or promotion of clearly defined national interest but the catechism of preaching “visionary” and “virtues” leadership of our “Parent-leaders” whose discourse cannot be questioned.

In addition, even to be government spokesperson or head of communication one doesn’t need to be articulate, well learned or versed with speaking for government and hold their own regardless of questions but only willing to attack opponents on twitter without reservation. That’s all!

As a result, many good writers even within the government have given up writing because of policing what is written looking for “who is against us” and, broadly, this explains why, so far, there has been no person in government that has written to defend the government and the president against Wrong’s accusations.

Even journalistic institutions that are supposed to promote and defend press freedom, and promote professionalism such as the Association of Rwandese journalists (ARJ), the Press House (almost defunct) and Rwanda Media Commission have been weakened and made almost irrelevant.

As a result, although we have many media outlets, a couple of them well funded, they all tell the same story but with no influence outside our boundaries; because that’s what they are designed to do.

The net result of disempowering local journalists, editors, analysts, writers and researchers is dependency on foreigners to speak for Rwanda and its leadership whenever it is attacked in the international media. That’s why we not only spend colossal sums on such outlets, but even where national interests are concerned like fighting genocide deniers, it’s foreign researchers who sign letters of appeals calling on foreign institutions not to give them a platform, etc.

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