Reform or die: Building a critical media in Rwanda

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Green Party head Frank Habineza speaking to local media 

Two weeks or so ago, I watched the In Focus talk show on Rwanda Television that focused on a seminal topic, ‘Building a Critical Media-Evaluating performance of media in reporting key issues facing society’.

The show’s host, veteran newsman Eugene Anangwe, and the three guests, all veterans of the local media environment, spent an hour attempting to dissect the failings, opportunities and challenges of the local media.

Watching the show, I attempted to follow their conversation through a few different ‘ears and eyes’, namely as a former journalist, a present day professional working in the field of communication, and finally as a normal consumer of local content.

What I saw and what I heard that Sunday night was nothing new; the four were simply rehashing old journalistic arguments that I’d heard since the late 90’s. They talked about issues of self-censorship, access to information, lack of training, lack of capital and tiny pool of local advertisers. I’m not saying that I did not enjoy it; far from it. They all sounded like the smart journalists they all were. The conversation was somewhat bookish, almost ivory-tower like. It sounded like a talk I would hear in journalism class.  Which as a former journalist, I thoroughly enjoyed.

What I didn’t see, unfortunately, was real self-examination. Which was a shame because they really had an opportunity to do a deep dive into the future of journalism and media in this country.

When we media people talk about critical journalism, what we are often talking about is reporting that has an anti-establishment slant to it. Critical media is supposed to question and hold power to account. And it’s supposed to do it in the name of the common people.  At least that’s the theory anyway.

This sense of mission, and overly inflated sense of importance (in my opinion) is why for the last couple of centuries, media has called itself, ‘the fourth estate’.

In pre-revolutionary Europe, there was thought to be three ‘estate’s that governed all life in the nation, namely the nobility (the first), the clergy (the second), and the commoners (the third). The media, gave itself the moniker the Fourth Estate due to the influence that it had on society. It could create celebrities and cause governments to fall in one fell swoop. It was truly powerful. What that was then, this is now.

Instead of talking of talking about how to build a critical media, in the classical sense, the four media veterans should have looked at the entire subject in a different way. They should have asked themselves this question first, was the media even critical in the first place? And when I say critical I mean the other definition of the word critical, ‘indispensable’.

They should have been asking themselves, is our profession truly indispensable? Are people’s lives truly enriched by our presence? If people do not consume our product, do they feel empty? Do they ravenously seek out our offerings?

If people did, then issues of funding and lack of access to information would not exist. Business people would rush to fund media houses and information would flow into newsrooms like a flood.

The media used to be the gatekeepers of information. Editors and media owners decided what information people were given. Those golden years are long gone.

The special place in society that media gave itself no longer exists because, among other things, the emergence of social media. Today, everyone can not only create content, they can disseminate it globally as well. The only way that any local media house will survive is by making itself indispensable to its audience. And the only way that that will happen is if they truly understand their audience. They need to provide what their audience wants and they need to be the only ones providing it. And that is hardest part; will our media become humble enough to prostrate itself to the will of the masses? That’s the billion-franc question.

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Remove all taxes on sanitary pads and give girls a fighting chance

A social worker teaches schoolgirls how to use a sanitary pad. Courtesy

“It would be amazing; it would be great. The problem is how do you determine who can afford and who cannot afford”?

These words, spoken by Alain Munyaburanga, the Head teacher of Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology, were reported last week in a news story titled ‘Activists push for free sanitary pads for girls from poor families’ got me thinking.

The headmaster’s choice of a single word was what got to me, the word ‘amazing’.

For you see, the dictionary definition of amazing is something that ‘causes great surprise or wonder’. It boggles my mind that the very idea of giving young women the tools needed to attend school or even live better lives should ‘cause great surprise and wonder’.

Sanitary towels are not a luxury and the women in our country should not be forced to treat them that way. Women should not be forced to choose between either buying sanitary towels or buying something essential for their wellbeing such as food, clothing or school materials.

According to UN statistics, 10% of Sub-Saharan girls lose almost a week of school every month due to the fact that they do not have sanitary towels. I do not know what the statistics are here in Rwanda, but what I do know is that even if 1% of our girls are unable to attend school due to their monthly menses, that is an untenable situation, especially because Rwanda’s major resource is its human capital.

We need to do better and we can do better.

In 2013, the East African Legislative Assembly showed a way forward. The Assembly urged its member states to remove all taxes and duties on sanitary equipment, whether towels or tampons. Unfortunately, no member state has done so as we speak. And that, my friends is both ‘amazing’ and, sadly, not unexpected.

I’m going to throw this theory out there, and please don’t take me outside city limits and stone me to death, figuratively speaking of course. The only reason that sanitary pads aren’t tax-free, or even better yet given out for free, is because menses do not affect men.

I believe that if we men went through that biological process every month without fail, we’d quickly figure out how to ensure that all of us had the means to comfortably stay at work and at school. And we’d figure out how to make it free or at least extremely cheap. But because it only happens to our sisters, we do not seem to care enough. And that is wrong.

Just look at condoms. The entire world figured out how to make them free in order to combat HIV, a disease that affects everybody, rich or poor, black or white, MALE or female. Would we have done this if HIV affected only women? I don’t know. I’d hope so, because I like to think the best of humanity, but I’m not sure to be honest. Men don’t really have a great track record when it comes to treating our women like, well, people like us.

Rwanda has led on so many things where gender relations are concerned. Through legislation, we’ve ensured that women have property rights and we’ve ensured that they have a constitutionally guaranteed place in our political system. Now, the next step is to partner with our women to ensure that they are able to fully enjoy the freedoms and opportunities that have been availed legislatively.

So yes, girls are now encouraged to go to school. That great. Now we need to work extremely hard to guarantee that we remove every hurdle that is placed in front of women in order for them to contribute fully to society. As a country we have been doing that and good progress has been made. We need to move even further and faster on this journey total women’s emancipation and and I believe that removing every single tax on sanitary equipment is another step in the right direction.

 

 

 

Chutzpah: The audacity of the new Rwanda

Mayor of Bugesera district Emmanuel Nsanzumuhire resigned

Mayor of Bugesera district Emmanuel Nsanzumuhire resigned

Happy June! Happy 2018! It’s been almost two years since I’ve put my thoughts on paper and to be honest, I’ve missed doing so. Over the last two years Rwanda has witnessed major reforms, developments, sporting victories and tragedies. We’ve seen droughts and we’ve seen floods. But amidst all this, one thing hasn’t changed; our leadership’s ironclad will to overcome the intrinsic challenges and structural weaknesses that threaten to keep us poor, uneducated, unskilled, unambitious and ill. The ‘problem’ with such leadership is, if you can’t keep up, you are pulled out of the game. It’s almost like America’s favorite pastime, baseball; three strikes and you are out.

That is the context through which I see the ‘tsunami’ that has been washing away civil servants all over the country. A while ago, I remember thinking that President Kagame’s new seven-year mandate would separate the wheat from the chaff, politically speaking.

The things that were almost ‘acceptable’ two years ago would become untenable. The definition of exemplary leadership conduct would change. The Imihigo performance targets would be revised and the speed of implementation would treble.

I haven’t been mistaken. Unfortunately, many leaders did not seem to get the memo. They thought that it would be business as usual. They are quickly finding out that is not the case.

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We aren’t doing business as usual. We aren’t trying to develop this country slowly but surely. We are trying to radically change the way we do things in order to skip as many steps as possible. That is why we investing in our country branding through initiatives such as ‘Visit Rwanda’. That is why we are opening up our borders and allowing visa on arrival. That is why we are investing in our airline. That is why we are finding new allies around the world while attempting to repair old ties with estranged partners.

This transformation is not and will not be easy. They’ll be long nights at the office, metaphorically and literally speaking. We’ll have to use our resources better; we’ll have to create four times more value for each Franc we invest in a project. And we’ll all need to care. No longer can we accept the mediocrity that has assailed us, whether in the private or public sector. We deserve better and we need to do better.

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RDB Chief Executive Officer, Clare Akamanzi

Last Tuesday, BBC journalist John Humphreys interviewed the RDB Chief Executive Officer, Clare Akamanzi, about the Visit Rwanda- Arsenal FC partnership. He called the deal ‘positively eccentric’ and ‘incredibly bizarre’. In my opinion, by labelling the deal in such terms, he was simply stating what he thought of our country’s leadership. He thought they (and by extension we, as a people) were eccentric and bizarre.

Funnily enough, I agree with him on the labels.  There is a Yiddish word that I think embodies all the bizarreness and eccentricity that is flowing through the veins of today’s Rwanda, chutzpah (audacity).

b2dea66a-7c3b-4bf1-9308-f7473344ee85Rwanda has the audacity to play in the big leagues (even if they happen to be in the English Premier League). We have the audacity to not only dream big but to go even further and bring the dream to life. No matter the cost. Now that makes a lot of people, both within and outside the country, uncomfortable.

That sense of discomfort is good, especially for us living in Rwanda. Why stay comfortable while children still lack proper nutrition? When people still drink lake water? When too many of our youth are unskilled and unemployed? We cannot afford to be comfortable and rest on our laurels because, to be honest, we don’t have enough laurels to rest on

Will ‘Made in Rwanda’ become the new ‘Made in China’?

image1On Monday, renowned local designer Sonia Mugabo (of the ‘SM’ fashion brand) outted ‘House of Hippo’, a local clothing store, on Twitter and Facebook for using images from her Remera-based store to promote itself.

“This is unacceptable. You don’t have the right to promote your business using my brand name. Please delete these photos ASAP”, Mugabo posted on the House of Hippo Facebook page. In response, House of Hippo defended itself, saying that it did nothing wrong. This despite the fact that the images that purported to show their store’s goods had the SM brand watermark!

 

 

 

 

 

image3Ms. Mugabo’s Facebook and Twitter tirade against House of Hippo opened the floodgates.

A local businessman, who runs a grocery delivery service, revealed that one company had actually copied his own company’s logo and was now was advertising its own delivery services using the very same logo.

The online conversation then moved from “we cannot believe the gall of these people” to “what can be done?”

While previously the issue of protection of intellectual property rights wasn’t one that made it into mainstream conversations (probably because, to be honest, Rwandans weren’t really making a whole lot of original products), it’s my belief that this issue has the potential to become a hot potato especially as local brands become more and more valuable financially.

 
While this issue might seem of little consequence right now, I worry that fakes can become the new ‘normal’.

Think I’m exaggerating? While living in Beijing from 2013-2014, I discovered Yashow Market, a tourist magnet located in the swanky Sanlitun district of the Chinese capital.

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In this multi-storied building, you could buy dirt cheap Nike sneakers and Levi jeans, Polo tee-shirts and Ray Ban sunglasses. The reason why they were so cheap? Because all of them were as fake as a Rwf 3,000 banknote. In fact, you negotiated the prices of the fake goods depending on how fake they were.

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Funny enough, Yashow Market wasn’t hidden from view; in fact, it was next to a major mall that sold $300 Adidas footwear and Starbucks coffee. It seemed as if Levi, Nike, Apple and Ralph Lauren had given up the fight against the fakes because there were simply too many producers of fake merchandise to go up against. These premier brands had gambled that discerning status-conscious customers would choose their real products, instead of the fakes.

Currently, we don’t have the kinds of issues that certain brands face in Asia, however I believe that it is only a matter of time that local brands, such as House of Tayo, Uzi and Haute Baso, face the scourge of counterfeiters.

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Haute Baso 

I know that we have laws that protect intellectual property rights. In fact, the Law N° 31/2009 OF 26/10/2009 on the protection of intellectual property is actually quite detailed.  However, I believe that there is a problem in how the law is meant to be enforced. While it purports to protect all the intellectual property owners, in reality it only protects those that can afford to pay a lawyer to take forgers and counterfeiters to task.

Our nascent creatives, who struggle just to break even every month, are in no position to hire lawyers to write cease and desist letters. All they can do is name and shame people online. This isn’t good enough.

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Sonia Mugabo (SM) 

Here is my suggestion; let us create a bureau, either in the National Police, or RDB, that provides a one-stop shop for those who want to report instances of intellectual property violation. This bureau would have the power to investigate these instances and warn offenders to desist from further action. I doubt that those warned would dare to continue committing the crime. Having such a reporting mechanism would, I believe, nip this growing issue in the bud.

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The author in a House of Tayo shirt

Recently, the Ministry of Commerce announced that it would waive VAT and import duties on textile raw materials and leather in order to encourage the local textile and shoe making industry; in doing so, the government, which will lose billions in import taxes and VAT,  hopes that ‘Made in Rwanda’ brands will flourish.

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However, I’m worried that we risk a ‘Made in China’ situation (where people think that anything made in China is fake, even if that isn’t necessarily true) unless there is a serious move against those who violate intellectual property rights.

The Catholic Church: When an apology isn’t an apology

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Even though the church sent no body to do harm, we, the Catholic clerics in particular, apologise, again, for some of the church members, clerics, people who dedicated themselves to serve God and Christians in general who played a role in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi”.

As reported by both local and international media, the above sentence was part of a multi-page communiqué, co-signed by all the Catholic bishops in the country, which was read out in all he parishes across the country on Sunday. The statement FINALLY acknowledges that church members planned, aided and carried out genocide.

The problem is, in my opinion, this statement not only comes decades too late but it also changes nothing to be honest.

First of all, the question that I need to ask is this, why this statement now? Its been 22 years since the horrors befell our country. Why didn’t this mea culpa come when the wounds were fresh? I feel that this ‘apology’ would have made much more sense then. I might be overthinking is, but was this communiqué simply an acknowledgement that Rwanda has changed for good and for always? Were the bishops biding their time, holding on to the hope that their old ‘partners’ would return, making such an ‘embarrassing’ apology unnecessary?

Secondly, if you read the carefully worded communiqué, you realise that the bishops aren’t actually apologizing for the Church’s actions and omissions. This isn’t an institutional apology that we are getting. This isn’t the voice of the Vatican. This is simply an acknowledgement that’s the Church’s priests and nuns participated in the killings. Ho hum. We all know that; a simple examination of the Gacaca records could show that. Why aren’t the bishops apologizing for not speaking out during the killings? Why are they not apologizing for not going on the radio, as a Church, and denouncing the plans being hatched to commit genocide? Why are they not apologizing as an institution for not giving more support for their members who bravely pushed back against the killers?

In his long reign as pope, Pope John Paul II formally apologied for the following; the legal process against Galileo Galilei, Catholics involvement in the African slave trade, the Church’s role in burnings at the stake and the religious wars that followed the Protestant Reformation, the injustices committed against women, the violation of women’s rights and for the historical denigration of women, the inactivity and silence of many Catholics during the Holocaust.

This is in addition to an apologies for the execution of Jan Hus in 1415, for the sins of Catholics throughout the ages for violating “the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and (for showing) contempt for their cultures and religious traditions; for the actions of the Crusader attack on Constantinople in 1204, the Catholic sex abuse cases, the Church-backed “Stolen Generations” of Aboriginal children in Australia and for the behavior of Catholic missionaries in colonial times in China.

Anything about the massacres in Ntarama Church? No. Anything about the gun-yielding Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka? No. It’s been two popes now since John Paul II breathed his last and still the silence from the Vatican is deafening.

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The idea that only Church members are in the dock, and not the Church itself, is ludicrous in my opinion. Something about the Rwandan Catholic Church, and its teachings, made genocide possible. Perhaps it White Fathers and their views on Hutu and Tutsi that skewed the Rwandan church. Maybe it was Archbishop André Perraudin and his Kabgayi minions that poisoned the well. Whatever it was, the rot in the Church revealed itself in its horrendous splendor in 1994. And for the bishops to pretend that the issue was a few bad ‘apples’ and not the institution itself is a fallacy of the highest order.

So forgive me if I don’t get excited about Sunday’s communiqué. It is simply a waste of everyone’s time. We need to demand more. The Church must fess up.

The Trump lesson: Information is the only buffer against those threatening everything we have built

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So, the next president of the United States is the Republican nominee, Donald Trump. I will let that sink in for a minute.

A Trump presidency wasn’t something many non-Americans were excited about; I mean, not only would he probably annul many of the international trade deals that opened the US markets to goods from developing nations, his administration would also probably terminate many of the environmental deals that aimed to slow down global warming. .

Trying to understand the rise of ‘The Donald’ in the US gave me pause for thought. As I watched the Trump tsunami gather more and more strength, I kept asking myself, “Why were the poorest of the poor voting against their own best interests”? “Couldn’t they see that this man was simply using them to further his own political career?” “Couldn’t they see that if he won, the people who would benefit the most from his policies are the very people that they are railing against”? “Didn’t they understand that globalization was a GOOD thing”? “Didn’t they understand that clean energy was the only way that they could guarantee a future for their great-grandchildren?”

You know I’m a firm believer in the reasonableness of the The Average Joe (or in our case, the Average Umutoni). What most people want in life is to simply give their families the opportunity to prosper the best they can. It is as simple as that. Every choice they make is based on that one singular goal.

The problem is, for that goal to be reached, certain choices need to be made. And all these choices being made are all based on one thing; good and accurate information.

When you look at the average Trump supporter, you’ll notice just how weak on the facts that they are. I mean, they actually believed that he was a self-made man, who would build a wall across the entire US-Mexico border and ‘make America great again’.

When his Republican rivals called him out on his policies, saying that they were untenable, his supporters ignored them. When the traditional media called him a liar, a hypocrite and unworthy of the presidency, his supporters plugged their fingers in their ears. I found it fascinating that despite the wall to wall election coverage, the average Trump voter was as ill-informed as ever. What had gone wrong?

I understand that there were various factors to explain the rise of Trump, but is my opinion that the Trump phenomenon is simply a symptom of the disconnect between the establishment and the poorest segment of the population.

I was very happy last week when I noticed that quite a few readers took issue with the opinions I spouted in my column. What I found slightly disheartening was just how many reactions were based on bad and/or incomplete information. This bothered me more a lot more than the people who labelled me arrogant and all sorts of names online because I felt that it could have been prevented.

Whereas I could have blame those people for their lack of a factual argument, I came to the realization that the only reason that they took their stances was because they simply didn’t have the necessary information to form a coherent and fact-based argument .

In many of my interactions with both Rwandans and non-Rwandans, I’ve realized that there is a ‘fact deficiency’ in many spheres of our conversations especially when it comes to government programmes and other ‘complicated’ topics.

This is, in my opinion, quite easily remedied. All that government needs to do is TELL people what it is doing and WHY it is doing it. And most importantly, HOW it will benefit them. I am not saying that that is not happening because that would be the furthest thing from the truth. However, there is a certain disconnect that we cannot afford to leave unbridged. The media has a huge role to play in this. In mature media markets journalists can do this all by themselves but here in Rwanda, a little ‘spoon feeding’ might be needed.

Donald Trump was able to use the existing disconnect to rally millions to his side. That is something that we can ill afford. The Rwandan establishment must do all it can to ensure that our people have the necessary information to know when a snake-oil salesmen is using them to further their goals.

When did PR become such a bad thing for Rwanda anyway?

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Posing with health insurance cards at a health centre in Kicukiro District.

Last week when I discussed the recent Economist article, ‘Look before you leap; The notion of leapfrogging poor infrastructure in Africa needs to come back down to earth’, I noticed that various commentators returned to a familiar trope; a narrative centered around the existence of nefarious Rwandan PR (Public Relations) ‘machine’.

The PR machine’ narrative is almost as annoying to me as the ‘western darling’ narrative that many subscribe to when commenting about this country. What is even more annoying is the fact that even those who should know better, like people actually living and working in Rwanda, get caught up in this falsehood as well.

To those that see Rwanda though PR machine-tinted glasses, our media savviness begins immediately on arrival. Visitors and returning citizens are met with friendly staff, orderly lines and electronic checks. Then they are ‘accosted’ with well paved roads.  Their eyes get ‘harassed’ by the brightness of working traffic lights and their noses are left unattacked by the smell of rotting garbage strewn on the street. “This is all a gimmick”, they say, “meant to mask the dire poverty”.

When Zipline launches the very first medical drone in the continent (if not in the world) in Muhanga, I saw it as an innovation that would help supplement the existing healthcare provision system by making emergency blood deliveries faster. Nothing more. Nothing less. What the cynics saw was a headline grabbing stunt that took focus away from more traditional modes of blood delivery such as vans and motorcycles.

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A drone at the Muhanga droneport ready to take off. / Faustin Niyigena/ The New Times

When some cynics look at the number of women in Parliament (and other branches of government), they believe that the world-beating numbers are simply window dressing, meant to paint Rwanda as a nation leading the world on gender relations. While what I see is simply an attempt by the framers of our Constitution to bring an essential segment of the Rwandan population into the political process.

There are many examples of this continuous back and forth, with each side trying to argue its point. But I would like to change the goal posts a little; I would like to start with the premise that Rwanda IS media savvy. That it indeed works hard to present itself in a certain light. So what?

When I leave my house in the morning, I make sure that I present myself in the best way I can. I brush my teeth, make sure that my shoes are polished and my clothes are pressed. I COULD show myself in my unwashed, filthy glory but I understand that the way that I present myself affects the way that I am treated. This same theory goes for nations as well.

Just look at how the United States presents itself to the world. Its president is the ‘most powerful man on earth’, it’s a ‘beacon for democracy’ and it’s the leader of the ‘free world’. Now if that isnt PR I don’t know what is. The United States, like any other country in the world, faces real challenges. Both its citizens and leaders realize that. But when it presents itself to the rest of the world, a certain narrative and image is presented.

So, yes Rwanda is media savvy. Yes, we show our best side to the rest of the world. And yes, it has benefited us. In a world where, on the whole, poor African nations are ignored except when their citizens are either killing each other or starving to death, we should be proud that we garner some positive headlines. In fact, it is actually amazing that Rwanda garners even the little positive press that it does. Remember that our sad claim to ‘fame’ is the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. This is a testimony to just how successful the PR efforts have been. We have nothing to be ashamed of; rather we should be extremely proud.

If Rwanda’s development was predicated on PR stunts and ‘white elephant’ projects, then we would be in big trouble but the fact of the matter is, while we are thinking big, we are also thinking very small.

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The Kigali Convention Center by night

Ours is a country that can build a multi-million dollar hotel and conference center while at the same time putting in place councils for parents at the village level (umugoroba w’ababyeyi). We can unveil the first Airbus A330 in our region, while at the same time ensuring that the poorest among us is given a free Mutuelles de Sante card.

So, to those that call us media savvy, I say “why thank you. You are too kind”.