Last Saturday, July 31, 2021, Cabinet, through the Prime Minister, announced the appointment of Mrs. Yolande Makolo as the new Government Spokesperson and Stéphanie Nyombayire as the substantive Press Secretary to the Presidency.
Before these appointments, Cabinet had, on July 14, made interesting appointments at the Presidency, where the new Press Secretary was named Deputy Principal Private Secretary to the President, and fellow youthful Vivianne Mukakizimya was named Director of Communications, among other appointments.
These appointments officially confirmed what had been unofficially operational for some time: government-media relations is now in the hands of younger female leaders. (Officially, media policy has, since the reforms of 2011, in a confused manner, been under a number of institutions including Rwanda Governance Board (RGB), RURA, RBA, Presidency and Local Government).
While these appointments tell us a lot about President Paul Kagame’s governing philosophy─ including, for whatever reasons, a commitment to women’s political representation, access to positions of power by the youth and hardline approach to government-media relations, they received scanty appraisal in the media.
Broadly, these appointments, as already hinted and regardless of some who perceive them as a narrowing of access to power around the president’s family and friends, have a positive streak – but also represent a reward for hardliners with regard to government-media relations and, due to this, they reveal how government intends to work with the media as we navigate COVID-19 induced socio-economic difficulties heading into the 2024 Presidential election season.
On the positive side, the appointments represent reward for loyalty, youth and continued support for women’s access to positions of power.
This milestone adds to that achieved in the legislative arm of government where women occupy 64% in the 80-member Lower House of Parliament and cabinet, where they constitute 55% with 40% permanent secretaries. In the judiciary, women represent at least 40% and, lately, female leaders have been named to and are in charge of some critical banks like BK, BRD and deputize at the Central Bank while some institutions of immense power like Rwanda Development Board, RwandAir and Rwanda Governance Board, are also led by women.
In terms of presence of women in positions of power, we could say that the new appointments represent a progressive milestone towards equal gender access.
Thus, while progressive feminists and advocates of youth access to positions of power will understandably celebrate the new appoints, the jury is still out on whether women’s access to positions of power necessarily lead to substantive benefits for women; although, personally, I strongly believe that ability is neither male nor female and our young girls who grow up seeing women speaking for government and representing us, will develop confidence that they too can occupy any position.
But the appointments also raise an old feminist development question─which is, do women in positions of power qualitatively act and manage differently and better than men? This normative question is normally raised by some radical feminists who locate today’s governance problems in the world at “macho and hardline-power politics” purportedly employed by most men in positions of power worldwide.
These radical feminists claim that men in power move with a harmer and see every problem as fixable by a nail and, in the process, we end up with not only confrontational approach to problem solving but also cycles of violence and exclusions of the “weak”, including women in positions of power; regardless of nation, race or geography!
Empirically, this position is supported by the fact that, regardless of geography or race, men have been the dominant force in positions of power worldwide and women are only starting to climb the ladder in a few nations.
In modern times, this debate─of whether women govern more humanely and better than men, was first tested and vigorously debated in the 1980s when Margret Thatcher became British Prime Minister. Due to her hardline conservative policies and take-no-prisoners’ approach to critics and management of government, she was labeled: “the only man in cabinet”!
But Thatcher’s power emanated from the strength of her ideas and the passion with which she pursued her policies in practice, than in dismissing critics or impoverishing and jailing critics or closing down media outlets. Throughout her over a decade’s tenure as Prime Minister, she never closed down any media outlets that critically analysed her policies nor jailed any critics; although, without fear or mincing word, told her critics to “go to hell”, politely!
In the media however, there is evidence to suggest that, when it comes to taking hardline positions with regard to government-media relations in Rwanda, labeling critics “enemies” of the state, impoverishing and “killing” the critical media, women have performed far better than men!
Therefore, the appointment of Yolande represents a hardening of government-media relations and continuation of promoting a single voice in our public discourse with dissent maligned, and even criminalized and punished.
Yolande, who has been at the Presidency for more than a decade was media advisor to the President before her appointment and before that, she had also been the Director of Communication at the Presidency and a key figure in determining how certain media organisations, like The New Times and KT operated.
Thus, the way she has shaped how government deals with and works with media goes beyond her Twitter exchanges with critics and perceived enemies of the state to, behind the scenes, influence how public officials respond to public criticism, to which media house gets financial support or get undermined to which journalists to invite or uninvite to presidential press conferences, to determining how certain media houses such as The New Times─where she is a Board member, works, et cetera.
As Kigali Today described her upon her new appointment, Yolande “…is renowned for taking no prisoners when it comes to defending Rwanda and the government”.
That a media outlet where she has substantial editorial influence can describe her thus tells you everything you need to know.
Yet, her influence doesn’t emanate from ideas on how government can expand the net of supporters and friends or how media can grow and work better with government, but simply taking hardline positions on critics and locking them out of benefiting from the economic system by making sure no business works or advertises with them.
Her approach isn’t to win over critics by sheer force of reason and informed debate and rarely write in the press or appear on talk-shows but attacks on social media and using other underhand means like excluding certain media houses from press conferences and benefiting from the market.
To understand Yolande Makolo approach and the kind of government-media relations it has produced in the last decade, it’s important to put it in its historical context so as to collectively view not only where we are going, but whether we are making substantive and qualitative improvement in our public and civil discourse since the end of the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994.
Analytically, we could divide post-genocide government-media relations into five phases. The first is the period between July 1994-2002. This was a very difficult period for the country and the media. It was papered not only by oppressive measures for the critical print media but also proliferation of media outlets still promoting divisive ethnic politics; high mortality of media outlets but also, eventually, robust debate on whether Rwanda should or shouldn’t open up the media landscape to allow private radio and televisions stations in view of the role of the media in the genocide.
But throughout these troubled times, we also had passionate and articulate government spokespeople like the late Lt Col Wilson Rutayisire who was also the first post-genocide Director of ORINFOR, Claude Dusaid (RIP) who is the Founding Chairman of The New Times in 1995, and Bring Gen Dr Emmanuel Ndahiro, et cetera.
Committed to the original ideals of the RPF, it was, during the reign of these men and a host of others, that, eventually, progressives won the debate on whether Rwanda should or shouldn’t open up and liberalize the media landscape. This period, whatever its excesses against the media, gave us the first post-genocide media law enacted in 2002 and which, before it was signed, the President had to force it back in parliament on account that it carried a death penalty arising out professional media work which he thought was inappropriate arguing that if any media acted as RTLM did during the genocide, there were other laws to deal with such practices.
In debates and speaking for government, these men could hold their own not only because they were intellectually able but were confident in their skin and positions knowing that they merited holding their positions on account of their contribution to the struggle and, where necessary, they threw knockout punches to critics, especially Joseph Bideri when he was still government spokesman and supremo at ORINFOR, now RBA.
The second phase is 2002-2008. This period can now be described as the “Golden Age” for a critical and independent media in the country especially under the soft-spoken and cautious Prof Laurent Nkusi (RIP) as Information Minister (2003-2008).
For it was in this period that not only a new constitution was inaugurated guaranteeing freedom of expression and of the press, but the media law was enforced leading to putting in place the Media High Council (MHC) and, critically, licensing private FM radio stations, and later TV stations, besides witnessing the thriving of a critical press that was actually respected within government.
This isn’t to say that it was a period without difficulties. As Information Minister, the progressive Prof Laurent Nkusi, repeatedly, refused to implement different proposals from the then more aggressive Media High Council (MHC) to ban certain critical media outlets, leading to the resignation of its then Chairman and at the time Director of the now nearly-inexistent Rwanda News Agency, Private Rutazibwa in 2005.
The resignation of Rutazibwa was sparked by the Minister’s refusal to ban Umurabyo newsletter for alleged defamation of the Head of State, preferring the courts to deal with it.
Prof Nkusi’s tenure proved untenable when he, again, refused to adhere to MHC’s proposal to ban Umuseso weekly in 2006 upon authoring an article deemed defamatory to the then powerful Vice President of the Lower Chamber of Deputies, Denis Polisi, arguing that the courts should deal with the case.
Indeed, Polisi went to court and the judge agreed that, Umuseso defamed him and, in one of the most telling ruling of the period, awarded the RPF’s powerful man damages amounting to One Franc for his pain. People talked about it for months!
The power-struggle between the moderate Minister and the more hardline MHC board continued and eventually, the latter won when, in a cabinet reshuffle of March 7, 2008, Nkusi was replaced by Louise Mushikiwabo.
Barely two months into her job, on May 2, 2008 at Serena Hotel, Mushikiwabo, in her first major decision as Minister of Information dismissed three journalists from celebrations to mark World Press Freedom Day!
With this decision, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) stated on May 6 that it was “… deeply disturbed by the increasingly fraught climate for the press in Rwanda, in particular the expulsion of three newspaper editors from a 2 May 2008 ceremony marking World Press Freedom Day on the orders of the new information minister, Louise Mushikiwabo”.
The media watchdog added: “Nowhere else in Africa does a government display this degree of contempt and aggressiveness towards journalists,” and that “This latest incident highlights the government’s inability to tolerate dissent or criticism, whether moderate or radical. The information minister should think twice about launching into such an unequal battle against the press, which the government will easily win.”
Indeed, the government “won” the battle against a free press since, at the time, two of the journalists dismissed from the celebrations eventually went to exile following the banning of their media outlets in 2010 shortly before the presidential elections.
The journalists sent out of celebration are: Jean-Bosco Gasasira, the editor of Umuvugizi at the time; Charles Kabonero of Umuseso and Jean-Gualbert Burasa (RIP) of Rushyashya. The first two ended up in exile, the latter, now dead (RIP), at the time gave in to the pressure and became fervent attacker of government critics.
It was under Mushikiwabo’s tenure as minister that, in 2009, the 2002 media law was reviewed and passed by Parliament but retaining criminal defamation and revealing sources of information by journalists and giving more powers to the MHC to ban media outlets it deemed “unprofessional”.
The third and perhaps most difficult phase for a free press was between 2009-2011. It was during this period that many media outlets were banned, critical journalists run to exile and MHC gained notoriety as press freedom abuser, leading to development partners, such as the DFID withholding funding from it.
It was during this period that a critical and independent media was “killed”. The way these journalists and media outlets were dealt with communicated to others what would happen if they didn’t toe the government line.
The fourth phase is the period between 2011-2015. This was a period of high expectation driven by attempt at reform. At the helm of the reform was the amiable Protais Muson who, in 2011 was Minister for Cabinet Affairs and caretaker of Information Ministry upon the appointment of Mushikiwabo to Foreign Affairs.
As I wrote in 2011, the most exciting thing of this period came on March 30th when, suddenly and fresh from a cabinet meeting, Musoni announced to an attentive audience at Serena Hotel attending a media conference that Government had decided to withdraw from media regulation and grant “self-regulation” to journalists themselves. This caused excitement and people wondered what would become of MHC which was a constitutional body at the time.
Besides granting self-regulation, the reform included turning RBA into a public broadcaster, changing the law and making MHC an institution responsible for capacity building and enacting access to information law.
On October 13 the same year, I wrote in The Chronicles, wondering: “…what does this reform mean in practice particularly with regard to how the government relates with the media and journalists on a day-to-day basis?”. At the time and in different meetings, most officials feared that “self-regulation” might fail; but a journalist-led Rwanda Media Commission (RMC) was set up and worked very well until 2015.
After 2011, there was no single institution in charge of media─with RURA, RMC, MHC, MINALOC, OGS, RBA and Presidency all playing a part.
But as someone who actively participated in the reform process and helping put in place a self-regulation blueprint and becoming the first advisor to RMC, I know that the process was mediated and enormously helped by moderate voices like Musoni as minister, Prof Anastase Shayka at RGB as CEO, Ignatius Kabagambe as the media coordinator and Arthur Asiimwe as Director-General, RBA.
But as reform went on, the day-to-day practice of government-media relations substantively continued to be determined by the communications office at the Presidency under Yolande Makolo and, Mushikiwabo as Spokesperson helped by Office of Government Spokesperson officials.
The fifth and final phase is 2015-2021. This represent the emergence of what we could call the “single voice” in the media and loss of legitimacy for RMC with the forced exile of its chairperson, Fred Muvunyi, due to a fallout brought about by his refusal to ban BBC as a result of airing “The Untold Story” documentary, but also due to friction with RGB in response to his declared independence and push for financial independence of RMC and dealing with donors such as UNDP.
Although, as I have argued before consider Louise Mushikiwabo to have been a good and successful Foreign Affairs Minister, in the short time she acted as information minister, she captured the will and mood of hardliners in government and helped decimate the critical media. It hasn’t changed.
Seeing that a hardline approach to the media invites rewards, Yolande continued Mushikiwabo’s attack on critical voices producing today’s compliant media with a single official voice in all our media outlets.
Yet, of course, the best approach to criticism against government isn’t to claim sainthood for government that doesn’t exist anywhere or seek to close down dissenting voices but winning them over. Recently, I have even seen a whole government minister claiming his government doesn’t use this or that spyware! But which state is in the business of telegraphing which capacity it has or doesn’t have? In Rwanda, we still do these ridiculous things because we haven’t properly understood the role of the state and how it should deal with its citizens to invite trust and foreigners. We still even beat our citizens in the name of enforcing state policy!
Looking back, we could say that we have been good at talking media reform and putting in place imaginative but powerless media institutions─like RMC, that was supposed to be a self-regulatory independent body but now captured by the state and, RBA that was supposed to be a public broadcaster but remains government mouthpiece in practice.
As an optimist however, I still look forward to the day both Yolande as Government Spokesperson and Stephanie as Presidential Press Secretary will, separately, address press conferences in our native Kinyarwanda and appear on talk-shows in our local media outlets. The day this happens is the day we shall hail to the new era of spokeswomen working for Rwandans and interested in winning their hearts and minds.
Dr Christopher Kayumba is Founding President of the Rwandese Platform for Democracy (RPD Rwanda)