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”.
Since 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 journalist 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.
They 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.
I 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?