Cry the beloved Rwandan journalist, unloved and unwanted

I know I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m not at all religious but I want to begin this week’s blog with a bit of Scripture that I will take from the Book of Luke, chapter 4, verse 25; Jesus said to them, “But I tell you the truth, no prophet is accepted in his own hometown”.

mediaSince last week a commission led by former Prosecutor General Martin Ngoga has been investigating the BBC’s reporting on Rwanda as a result of it’s October 1st broadcast of the infamous ‘Rwanda’s Untold Story’ documentary.

Watching the documentary myself, I couldn’t believe just how much access Jane Corbin received. She was able to go to the Presidential Palace Museum and shot as much as she wanted. This might not seem like a big deal but I know just how difficult it is to film there; in fact, its almost impossible. But there was Corbin, shooting as much footage as she wanted. And after all that, after the government had bent over backwards to accommodate her, what happened? She spat, figuratively, in their face.

While this is the most recent brush with self-serving and dishonest international journalists, it is by no way the only one.

Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times is an example. This is a journalistsitemgr_photo_330236 who, after being invited by the Ministry of Youth to Iwawa Island to see how former drug abusers and street children were learning new skills, wrote that it was a local version of ‘Alcatraz’ (a famous US island prison), where children were in danger of molestation.

He made it seem that he discovered the island, whereas the truth is government officials with nothing to hide escorted him there. The title of that story? ‘Rwanda Pursues Dissenters and the Homeless’. That was in 2010.

Three years later he was back in the land of a thousand hills with an even juicer assignment; an exclusive interview with President Kagame. The result? An article titled ‘ The Global Elite’s Favorite Strongman’ that was insulting, patronizing and patently unfair. It was, what us journalists call a ‘hatchet job’.

I have many more examples of the government’s warm welcome being used against it by foreign journalists who have an agenda. So, forgive me if I admit that I don’t have much love for foreign correspondents, especially the ones who fly in one day, write a sensational story, and fly out the next (the local correspondents are much better; perhaps because they actually have to live in the country).

But I envy them.

African-stories-Kampala-blog-thumprintThey get official access that local journalists could only dream of having. They want to write about methane gas? They will be personally escorted to Kivu Watt and given a guided tour. Want an interview with ex-FDLR? In fact, airline tickets are sometimes availed to the lucky sods.

Us lowly local journalists? We are tarred with the same brush despite the fact that we come in all shapes and sizes. A New Times journalist is given the same moniker as a local tabloid writer; ‘unprofessional’. When we want information we have to jump through countless hoops. Official sources are often too busy to take calls, they are “busy” or “in a meeting”. Even if the information is finally availed it is either late or incomplete. Forget trying to get an exclusive interview with the biggest fishes in the Rwandan pond; that’s a fool’s errand.

What I find humorous is that often after Rwanda takes a shellacking in the foreign media, it is the local media that takes the lead is picking apart the reported untruths.

imgI understand that cooperating with international media CAN BE positive for Rwanda’s international image (although it has often led to the reverse) but I believe that the ‘special’ treatment their agents receive should be, in fact, reserved for local journalists (if there is to be any special treatment at all). We are the ones who speak FOR Rwandans and we are the ones who speak TO Rwandans. Any kind of official communication strategy should be premised on that fact.

Local journos are called unseasoned and unprofessional? Let’s pretend that that is true. How shall they become seasoned and professional if they are not fully supported? If exclusive interviews are impossible for them to come by? If even American college kids have better access to our leaders than they do?

Jobs, not police action will stop human trafficking

On Sunday a young girl was tearfully reunited with her family after a month-long stint in the dark world of human trafficking. The senior six student had been trafficked to Zambia on 18, October and it was only through the hard work of the national police, the ministries of gender, internal security and foreign affairs, Interpol and other regional law enforcement bodies that she didn’t become just another statistic. And thank God for that because the statistics are scary.

54 Bangladeshi illegal immigrants were arrested in Rwanda in 2010.

54 Bangladeshi illegal immigrants were arrested in Rwanda in 2010.

Human trafficking, an industry that accounted for a whopping 31.6 billion dollars in 2010 according to expert Jeremy Haken is the fastest growing trans-national criminal activity, leaving the drug trade in its dust. Whether in the form of bonded labour, forced labour and child labour, this trade in human beings has landed right on our doorsteps.

According to a recent UN report, Rwanda is both a source and a transit route for those engaged in the sale of human beings. Police statistics reveal 153 cases of human trafficking registered since 2009, with the majority of the victims being young females below the age of 35.

5babroad5dvictimsbyregionThankfully no one is burying their head in the sand; only last month there was a high profile symposium to tackle human trafficking that was chaired by the First Lady. The President himself spoke about the issue on his recent trip to Kirehe District saying, “ those involved in human trafficking should know that we will do everything possible to stop them. We will prove to them that it’s a wrong path and an extremely risky venture for them… We must make it very difficult for the traffickers to operate on our territory”.

As evidenced by the young girl’s return on the weekend, the authorities are doing their bit. However, I’m worried that law enforcement won’t be able to arrest this crime. Not because it’s incompetent, but because it cannot arrest poor decision-making and poverty.

Just look at how the young girl ended up in Zambia.

She met a man on in a taxi on her way home who promised her a good job in Zambia. They exchanged contact information and kept in touch. “He paid all expenses which included a passport, transport fare, feeding and accommodation. He gave me another simcard on which we communicated and he discouraged me from telling my parents about the whole mission,” she said.

He then transported her to Uganda, then to Tanzania and finally to Zambia. Once in Zambia, she was told that there wasn’t a job waiting for her but rather a matrimonial bed. He wanted them to wed. Luckily she had already become suspicious before he declared his intentions and found a way to call home.

Now, I’m loathe to point fingers at the victim; she was young and the opportunity to make ‘big bucks’ seemed like a dream come true. So much so that she was willing to drop out of school, abandon her family and risk everything for the hope of a well paying job. And that, dear readers, is why I doubt whether we’ll stamp out human trafficking in Rwanda anytime soon.

Victims saved from human trafficking in 2012.

Victims saved from human trafficking in 2012.

There are too many young people in this country who feel like they aren’t able to fulfill their dreams for self-improvement in this country. They believe that wages are too low and job opportunities too limited. Whether this is true or not isn’t the point. It is all about perception. They simply feel that life outside is better than life back home. So even if the ‘deals’ sound too good to be true, their desperation will make them ignore all the risks involved.

I know that there are tonnes of programmes designed to help young Rwandans get a foothold in the job market but we must ask ourselves a few questions; first, do young people even know that these programmes exist? Secondly, are the programmes reaching the right people? Thirdly, do young people actually find those programmes useful? At the end of the day, unless these young people believe that they have a chance to make a good living here they will always be one wrong step away from becoming just another human trafficking statistic.

Those of us who have got smoke billowing from our exhausts are in a world of trouble

The author alongside the Black Mamba

The author alongside the Black Mamba

The vehicle, lovingly called the ‘Black Mamba’, is one of, if not, my most prized possession. It was a graduation gift from the Old Man and it was the very first car I actually drove (other than the driving school vehicle whose clutch I destroyed). It has taken me up and down these fair hills and it has not let me down as often as it should have, bearing in mind its age and my penchant for not servicing it regularly.

The car, in my humble opinion, is a cool customer, with its black paint and tinted windows. The only issue with it is that you can see me coming a mile away. Not because of how big it is, rather because of the exhaust smoke that it emits when it is going up a hill. For you see, it has a diesel engine and as any ‘motorhead’ will tell you, diesel isn’t a very clean burning fuel. Adding a dirty fuel to an engine that was assembled in 1996 is a recipe for disaster.

I would have kept driving the car, blissfully polluting all and sundry, in the knowledge that I wasn’t breaking any rules. That is, until someone emailed me a copy of the Emission’s Law. What!? Was there even an emissions law? Yes dear readers, there is. Officially known as the ‘Prime Minister’s Instruction’s N°005/03 OF 27/12/2013 Preventing Air Pollution by Vehicular Emissions and Machines using Petroleum Products in Rwanda, this law, which comes into effect in exactly two months, should be read by everybody because it affects us all.

For example, those who import motorcycles for sale will not be able to import used motorcycles. They will have to be brand new. Those importing them for personal use will have to import ones that were manufactured within the last five years.

Those taking their cars to the ‘Controle Technique’ center in Remera will have another thing to fret about other than their car’s shoddy body work and wonky suspensions. They will also be testing the car’s exhaust emission, making sure that it doesn’t exceed the levels set by the Rwanda Bureau of Standards (don’t ask what level that is because I don’t think they have come up with a figure-someone asked for me). And if you are operating a commercial vehicle like a ominibus you’ll have to get an emissions permit twice a year unlike everyone else who will have to suffer the process once a year.

By the way, have you ever heard of a catalytic converter? Well, you better. Because the law states that all cars imported into Rwanda have to have one and all vehicles in the country have to have one installed as well.

This new law has me sweating. Not because I don’t care about the air I breathe. Rather I’m sweating, trying to figure out how I will be able to get a new catalytic converter in two months. It’s not like you can walk into a Nakumatt and pick one off the shelf. Someone will have to import it from God knows where. It’s already hard enough to get normal spares for the ‘Mamba’. I will either have to park the car or keep using it and risk innumerable fines.

So, all I can ask is, why didn’t someone inform us of this new set of rules? I found out that there was a campaign to sensitize people a while back about car emissions but I have to ask, if I, a newsman, didn’t know about the law coming into effect, who has?

The lack of proper campaigns to inform people about new regulations is real weakness in my opinion. I suspect that various offices think that calling media to cover a single event is what they deem a ‘campaign’. I must disabuse them on this notion. A ‘campaign’ worthy of its name is long term and constantly engages and educates those it aims to inform. This article is my bit for this rather shoddy campaign and I hope it is appreciated.

So, if you see my walking in the hot sunshine or getting drenched in a rain shower, please don’t hesitate to give me a ride. I will much appreciate it.

The New Times earlier published this blog

After the noise pollution controversy, what is the way forward?

Rwandan Youth Culture Now

Rwandan Youth Culture Now

In the rare occasion that the mythical ‘power of the pen’ proves to be more than deluded writer’s pipedream, victory must be savoured. Last week, following an unsettling encounter with the Kigali noise pollution policy and its enforcers, I responded the only way I knew how: by pouring out my feelings in my blog and posting it on the social media platforms I’m a member of.

I didn’t think too much of it; I thought that I’d garner a few views as usual and life would continue with little interruption. Boy was I wrong.

In a few hours it was trending like hotcakes and my email alert was pinging like mad. I seem to have struck a chord because the vast majority of the commentators on my blog agreed with me that the noise pollution policy was quickly becoming unpopular with both the business community and the larger Kigali community. Realising that this discontent was nearly universal, I decided to go a step further and started an online petition ‘Create a Better Noise Policy’ which I then addressed to Kigali City Council and the National Police.

With the petition and the blog trending, I guess it was only a matter of time that the city and police administration would address it. I did not even for one second think that they actually would face the issue head-on; I’d come to expect a deaf ear from the higher ups, especially when complaints were coming from young people. So, imagine my surprise when I received a call from Rwanda Television, inviting me to discuss noise pollution and its enforcement with the police spokesperson and the mayor of this city.

To be honest, I was both excited and nervous. I mean, it’s not every day that you go on television and sit face to face with the bane of your existence. I did not know how the interview would go, but the last thing I thought I would feel following the experience was pity for the mayor.

Detailing the issues he had with business people, he revealed that instead of the nightspots being the victims of a cruel and unnecessary noise policy, they were the villains instead. The bars and pubs that Kigalians patronised in their thousands every day, I learnt, were more often than not, unlicensed establishments without the required permits from city hall. According to the mayor, most of the establishments that had fallen foul of the noise policy operated on restaurant licenses, which did NOT allow them to play loud music, and not bar licenses that would have allowed them to do so. Imagine my surprise when he told me that only one nightspot in Kimihurura actually had a bar license. ONE.

So, I will be the first to admit that the targets of my outrage should have

Sundowner is the only fully licensed bar in Kimihurura.

Sundowner is the only fully licensed bar in Kimihurura.

been shared with both the authorities and the business community. Maybe I was unfair not to take the business community to task over their refusal to adhere with the law.

If the businesses had followed procedure the debate I had with the ‘higher ups’ would have gone differently. It would have been less about whether they were even supposed to be operating in the first place, and more about how they could operate within the confines of the law.

The mayor does not go off scot-free however. So far, he has still been unable to explain how legal nightspots can ensure that they don’t face any trouble. He speaks about lawful noise levels (of about 70 decibels in commercial areas, and 50 decibels in residential areas) but then forgets that unless law enforcement have instruments that are able to measure the sound levels, the issue of subjectivity will come up. Remember, what is someone’s legal music can be someone else’s unlawful noise.

So, what should be the way forward? First of all, the City of Kigali has to start enforcing its own laws better. Don’t wait for years to pass before you shut down a place that doesn’t have the correct documentation. It’s not as if those funny businesses hide their activities. Such lack of monitoring oversight encourages other potential businesses to do the same and discourages those who would follow the correct procedures.

Secondly, have a proper WRITTEN code that governs nightspots, thus ensuring not only noise compliance, but also making sure that safety and sanitation standards are adhered to. Right now, these regulations are either non-existent or they are haphazard and thus difficult to follow.

Want to professionalize the media? Then sue it

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Imagine this scenario; you are a public official gracing one of the highest positions of power and as a responsible citizen you decided to partake in a certain government programme. However, instead of lauding you (or barring that, leaving you alone) a media house, without any sources or even giving you chance to clarify matters, writes an irresponsible piece of journalism badmouthing your act and your intentions. Think that cannot happen? Well, then hear ex-Prime Minister Damien Habumuremyi’s story.

“I adopted a daughter from Nyundo orphanage at a time when we decided to close orphanages in the country. Rushyashya instead wrote an article that my daughter gave birth to a child and I decided to take the child to an orphanage and later I had to get back the child from the orphanage”, he told The New Times.

Rushyasha is a local Kinyarwanda-language newspaper run by Jean-Gualbert Burasa.

According to the irate gentleman, that story wasn’t the only one he had an issue with. He complained that Rushyashya went even further and linked him (and Senator Consolee Uwimana I might add) to the FDLR terrorist group operating in the DR Congo. All without a shred of evidence or sources.

The Rwanda Media Commission (RMC), local media’s self regulation organ, came down ‘hard’ on Rushyashya after receiving a complaint from Senator Uwimana. It ruled that the FDLR story did not, and I quote, “meet ethical and professional standards that guide journalists in Rwanda, during the writing, editing and publication processes, hence a decision was reached to sanction Rushyashya newspaper”. Strong words indeed; and what was the punishment you ask for tarnishing her name with FDLR’s genocidal brush? A strongly written statement on RMC’s website and a demand for a written apology from Rushyashya.

Now I don’t know about you, but if someone wrote something malicious and untrue about me in a widely read newspaper, I would want something more than a mere forced apology. I would not allow someone to soil my good name and reputation without any consequence. I would sue and I would sue hard.

As a member of Rwanda’s media I will be the first one to say that we need to do away with libel as a criminal offence. Our police and prosecutors have already too much on their plate and, in my opinion, they have enough real cases to tackle. However, I believe that suing media bodies in civil court for slander, libel or defamation should not only occur but should also be encouraged.

I keep hearing people say the same thing over and over again, “Rwanda’s media is unprofessional” and I’m honestly sick and tired of it. It is my belief that we remain unprofessional because, along with many other factors, we are allowed to get away with murder, journalistically speaking, I’m pretty sure that some of the more outrageous elements in the media, who will write and publish anything to garner increase their circulation, would think twice about writing patently false things if they knew they could lose their business over it.

I’m happy that the ex-Premier says that he intends to sue Rushyashya over the FDLR story. Such an action was a long time coming in my view. In this country we use the word ‘accountability’ quite a lot. The Press must also be accountable as well.

I get it. Suing a newspaper, or any media house for that matter, is a tedious, expensive undertaking. You need a lawyer and you have to spend time that you probably simply don’t have in court. But look at it this way, if a newspaper can publish a malicious article linking a former prime minister to rebels, what makes you think that anyone is safe? Taking one for the ‘team’ and going to court not only gives a victim some kind of satisfaction but it also acts as a lesson to other media houses, warning them that they better have their facts straight. Or suffer the consequences.

I think that local media has been getting too many free passes. I think its high time this stopped. Sue often and sue hard. It’s the only way to keep us on our toes.