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.

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