On Monday, Rwanda’s Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo appeared on the Qatar-based Al Jazeera news network to rubbish claims made by The Independent newspaper that Rwanda had sent an assassin to kill two Rwandan nationals in the United Kingdom. Rene Mugenzi, one of the people at the centre of this storm, was also interviewed by the same news network. The live interview, which was broadcast at around 3:30 pm local time, was a fair piece of journalism. Mugenzi was allowed to give his side of things and Mrs. Mushikiwabo was allowed to rebut. All in all, it was a tasty exchange which allowed the television viewer to get both sides of the argument. However, when the news story was replayed at primetime that evening Minister Mushikiwabo’s segment was totally butchered by the editors while Mr. Mugenzi’s was left unscathed. That piece of editing left us, the viewers, without both sides of the story.
About three weeks ago, the President had an interview with the Financial Times, ‘FT: Lunch with Paul Kagame’. Instead of writing about Rwanda’s socio-economic progress (or at least analyzing some of the criticisms aimed at the regime) we readers had to read about the President’s personal chef and what not. The entire paragraph gave the impression of a man, so paranoid that he couldn’t trust anyone with his food. As an FT reader I didn’t expect such unnecessary information. If I had wanted some tabloid smut I would have read The Sun or the Red Pepper. But tabloid smut was what I got and the impression I got was a man scared of his own shadow, whether it was true or not.
The Ian Birell vs. Paul Kagame ‘Twitter spat’, as it was called by world’s press, was another instance where Rwanda’s wish to engage with the rest of the world turned into a shot in the foot. Instead of the Twitter exchange becoming a positive story of a leader willing to engage with both his people and the world as well, it became a story of a ‘heroic’ journalist taking on the ‘might’ of the Rwandan dictatorship because no one else could. Again, Rwanda’s message was twisted.
I’m sure that the government’s communication honchos see things in a different light, but in my humble opinion a strategic ‘withdrawal’ from the West’s media would be welcome. Question, when the last time you read a story that didn’t include the words ‘guilty of genocide in the Congo, opposition leaders killed or assassination plot in South Africa”? These allegations, which have never been substantiated, so often color any and every story about Rwanda that they’ve almost become fact, not merely allegation.
Is it time that Rwanda stopped trying to engage the traditional Western media? Maybe. The power dynamic between small states like ours and huge media organizations that influence public perception is always going to be skewed and patently unfair. Does that mean we should withdraw and lick our wounds? No. But Rwanda has to become more strategic than it has been so far. If you ask the man or woman on the street in New York, “where do you get your information from”, I bet that they tell you Facebook, Twitter or some news blog like the Huffington Post. That is where Rwanda has to become strong; social media removes the need of the middle man (BBC, The Independent or The New York Times) and delivers the message straight to the end user. Big media is on its last legs; Rwanda must move away from the traditional, ponderous and biased journalism and embrace user generated media. That’s the new frontier, a frontier that Rwanda must conquer if we are to get our messages across fairly.