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.