Reporters without context

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released their 2010 World Press Freedom Index this week. Rwanda slipped 12 places on 2009 to rank a lowly 169 out of 178 countries. Jina Moore has put together a good analysis of this ranking and, as she points out, some of the justifications for Rwanda’s position are laughable,

RSF alleges that in Rwanda, “Journalists are fleeing the country because of the repression, in an exodus almost on the scale of Somalia’s.” I’m no naïf, but this is laughable… Whatever you think of Kagame, Kigali is no Mogadishu. link

She has a point. 2010 has not been great, but this is not Somalia. Umuvugizi acting editor, Jean-Leonard Rugambage, was murdered in June, 2010. The editors of Umuseso and Umuvugizi live and publish in exile. Both tabloids were banned for six months in April, 2010. More recently, both Umurabyo and Umusingi got into trouble with the law. However, this hardly constitutes an exodus.

This is not the first time RSF have things slightly out of whack with regards to Rwanda. They leapt to the defence of VOA News and others in June, 2010,

“By excluding them from the approved list, the communiqué has the effect of banning Rwanda’s leading newspapers, such as Umuseso, Umuvugizi and Umurabayo, and several radio stations, including Voice of Africa Rwanda (a Muslim radio station) and Voice of America.” link

The word on the streets of Kigali at the time was that VOA and others, rather arrogantly, thought they didn’t have to comply with Rwandan media registration procedures and so they simply didn’t file their papers. Until they received a warning.

Comparing Rwanda with Somalia, jumping to conclusions about blanket bans and defending publications which, according to western diplomats I have spoken to, have a history of fabricating quotes and publishing unsubstantiated rumour means organisations like RSF lose a great deal of legitimacy in the eyes of Rwandans.

This is a shame as any real concerns RSF might raise about Rwanda in the future will be easier to fob off. For Rwanda’s part, it could do better. As I blogged previously,

The Media High Council didn’t do itself any favours by banning the two newspapers, yet failing – in it’s role as media overseer – to do anything to help them steer a more ethical journalistic path. As one source close to the Media High Council told me,

“So they banned them for six months. Great. But, are they helping them become better. To help them do better journalism? No. They’re not even talking to them. So, can we assume, when the ban’s lifted that they just come back and continue as before, business as usual?” link

There are problems with the Rwandan press. Media emanating from Rwanda is almost universally uncritical of power, while the blogs and commentators outside the country are almost universally critical of power. The reality is that things are not all bad and they’re not all good. In that respect, Rwanda is just like anywhere else.

Self-censorship is probably the biggest and most unquantifiable problem here, which relates directly to a key question, especially for foreign correspondents – how do you write about this country and manage to remain fair and balanced? Christopher Vourlias articulates the problem far better than I can,

Since last fall, when I first proposed a story about Kigali to my travel editor at The Washington Post, I’ve written, scrapped, re-written and trashed a half-dozen well-meaning drafts that just didn’t seem to get to the heart of what it means to live in Rwanda today.

This is a country of divisions, after all, Hutu-Tutsi (still, despite the government’s best intentions) and Before-After being the most obvious examples. But the reporting on this country is equally, and just as deeply, divided.

If you’ve followed the news out of Rwanda for the past few months, or the past year, you’re likely to think that this is either a country of economic and technological marvels boldly striding into the 21st century, or an autocrat’s playground built on plundered wealth, where a silenced population cowers under the weight of a repressive regime.

The reality – as with all countries, of course – lies somewhere in between. (Most Rwandans, I suspect, are more scared of hunger and disease than a lack of political representation in parliament.) But how to tell that story – how to tell any story? link

Photograph taken at the Kinyarwanda section of the BBC World Service in Bush House, London.

10 Responses to “Reporters without context”

  1. Rob Crilly says:

    Are they the same as CPJ? Because they also sound like they know zilch. That said, Rwanda is an oppressive environment for journalists. You sound like you are getting a bit too comfortable.

    Umuvugizi acting editor, Jean-Leonard Rugambage, was murdered in June, 2010.

    I hardly think that the fact that some newspapers play fast and loose with the facts excuses the harassment, intimidation and murder of journalists.

  2. Kigaliwire says:

    Not the same as CPJ Rob, but from a similar stable.

    Wouldn’t say I was comfortable, but then I’m not a “reporter”. Rwanda is repressive and journalists/people do self censor, but don’t muddy the discussion with stupid comparisons with Somalia, blind, unbalanced defence of any and every banned/suspended publishing outlet and issue factually inaccurate press releases about banning VOA et al.

    I’m not defending the appalling state of Rwandan media, I just expect better of RSF and in the long term shoddy arguments and dubious indexes distract rather than further discussion. And the one thing Rwanda absolutely needs is a forum for rational discussion.

    But, what do I know… We’re discussing :) You in London next month? Do I owe you a pint? Or do you owe me?

  3. Anon says:

    Rob, the fact that a so-called journalist was murdered does not mean the govt was responsible. Much of the pre-election reporting by the foreign press mentioned such things, implying that the govt was responsible, when in fact there was no evidence that they were. There is no evidence for that and in fact a man has confessed to his murder.

    The likes of Umuvugizi and Umuseso wrote inflamatory articles, admitted that they lied, never paid tax and extorted money from people. If you see this link for example you will understand why they were suspended, I hope:-

    It is easy for you to use words like “oppressive, harassment, intimidation and murder” but have you checked whether they are in fact fair? I don’t mean whether HRW use such words but whether there is real evidence for them? Remember HRW are pressing Aid donors to stop Aid, and not for the first time. Other NGOs have also been involved covertly. The consequences are potentially less development for many very poor people.

  4. kigaliwire says:

    Thanks for the comment Anon. In defence of RSF et al, I think they mean well and do reflect very real concerns on the ground. However, it’s just difficult to take them seriously when they packaged their argument so badly.

    Also, I have met a number of Rwandan hacks both in and out of the country who would dispute your argument about the harassment thing.

    Oh, and on the Anon moniker. I appreciate your comments, but please note I am averse to anonymous comments in general, see the about page

    Don’t mind you staying anonymous, but a little bit of digging suggests to me you might have some interests in Rwanda. Nothing wrong with that and pretty much anything but hate speech is welcome here. It’s just good to know where we’re all coming from.

  5. Anon says:

    With some NGOs it may just be lazy work/journalism but, as i am sure you know, a lot of negative copy (and its consequences) is being orchestrated by “Rwandans in (self-imposed) exile” and the “anti-imperialist left” and others. The former includes people e.g. posing as Genocide survivors/objective Rwandans and distributing misleading and damaging copy. For example nonsense like this:-

    and a newish but slanted blog like this

    The “anti-imperialist left” oppose the Kigali govt solely because it is friends with the US much as they support Hugo Chavez because the US do not like him.

    In the age of the internet even the poorly written copy from RSF and CPJ goes round the world, is treated as credible by many people and takes up govt time e.g

    Criticism from the likes of you and Jina get less coverage sadly.

    So if PSJ mean well but are naive or slipshod they should realise that copy like theirs nevertheless has consequences. Rebutting nonsense and trying to reassure donors takes people away from more constructive activities and in some cases (see above) that is part of the idea.

    Debate about Rwanda is difficult because it is so polarised. Two of your Gacaca speakers at SOAS were passionate in their contempt for the Kigali govt. I try to be objective anyway, otherwise what is the point really?

  6. kigaliwire says:

    You’re right, there are a number of diaspora and foreign commentators, bloggers and news sites based overseas that appear to have agendas. I’d link to them if they produced balanced arguments, but they never do – at least not in my experience.

    In addition, I am strongly of the belief you have to live here, or at least have lived here for a year or more, to be in a position to give an informed opinion.

    I know for a fact some folk who blog on Rwanda have never even visited, let alone lived here.

  7. Anon says:

    I agree. Although even when you are there you can sometimes find it is not easy to get to the bottom of a fairly simple matter. In the Gacaca discussion I liked Phil Clark’s comment that he had spent a very long time doing his research and spoken to various people many times. Particularly with an issue like Gacaca, the need to do research in that way seems very credible.

  8. kigaliwire says:

    The fact that Phil did over 500 interviews too helped :) And also, like everyone I know here who “studies” Rwanda, the longer you live here the less certain you are of any ideas, preconceptions and theories.

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