Berna Namata has been a business journalist for more than six years, mostly in Rwanda. She spent a year in London as a Chevening scholar. She returned in 2017 and currently works in Rwanda for the Nation Media Group’s popular regional weekly newspaper, The East African.
In this guest blog for the Foreign Office, she reflects on the financial challenges to growing a robust media sector in Rwanda – and says that show-biz coverage shouldn’t be its only future.
The media sector in Rwanda has benefited from a great deal of goodwill from government. There’s been a series of favourable policy decisions. They include setting up a self-regulatory body (the Rwanda Media Commission, set up in September 2013) and most recently the decriminalising of defamation.
But challenges to the media sector remain. Too often, talented journalists in this part of the world live hand to mouth. When I was in the UK three years ago, I watched countless times as UK public officials including the prime minister were grilled by journalists. What really struck me was the amount of respect officials in the UK have for journalists. Perhaps that’s because most British journalists are not only well educated but also well paid. That’s not the case here.
I think that the biggest challenge for Rwandan media is relevancy. By that I mean getting to grips with day-to-day issues that really interest local audiences. At the moment, the mainstream media in Rwanda is dominated by fluff-stuff: show-biz, celebrity gossip, coverage of beauty contests and cat fights between Rwandan musicians.
But ordinary Rwandans also care deeply about their tax bills and how their money is being spent. For example, they want to know whether their Mutuelle health insurance contributions are being collected and remitted to the RSSB (Rwanda Social Security Board). And, as everywhere in the world, Rwandans care about reforms in education. Rwanda embarked on curriculum reform at the beginning of the year. Audiences want to know if the reforms benefit their children? These are all under-reported stories. If journalists in Rwanda want to win public support, I think they have to tackle these issues.
The airwaves in Rwanda are still dominated by entertainment. In my view, there’s not enough of the critical debate and discussions that are so needed for Rwanda to achieve its ambition of a knowledge based economy by 2050. And there’s a proliferation of online media outlets that operate without any editorial policy or professional journalists. Some engage in propagating misinformation. As such, they remain a threat to mainstream media which follows a strict code of ethics. Many Rwandans still turn to foreign media for news analysis and insightful content about Rwanda.
Gap for journalists to fill
There’s a clear gap for us Rwandan journalists to fill. The onus lies with us to aspire to do better in our work. We have to demonstrate independence and critical insights to be effective in our work in a way that promotes accountability and the long-term survival of our sector.
I do not think the end goal for any journalist should be better pay. Journalists should aspire to make difference in their society by telling compelling stories. But I also strongly believe that if newsrooms and media houses assert their relevancy by producing compelling content, it indirectly influences a strong following that can be monetised. This, in turn, will lead to better support for newsrooms and journalists.
The UK and Canadian governments are working together to defend media freedom and improve the safety of journalists who report across the world. Jeremy Hunt, the UK Foreign Secretary and Chrystia Freeland, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, will co-host the Global Conference for Media Freedom in London on 10 and 11 July 2019.