Media shouldnt blame government for press censorship, they should blame their empty stomachs

African-stories-Kampala-blog-thumprintThe Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a self-appointed media freedoms watchdog, this week published its annual report on the state of the media in Rwanda, and as I have come to expect, they shrilly voiced an opinion that I could not agree with at all.

Reading through the two thousand word summation of the ‘state’ of Rwanda’s media, I couldn’t help but laugh at the manner in which the report’s author, Anton Harbor, twisted himself up, trying to blame the state for my fraternity’s troubles. He grudgingly admits that a major set of media reforms have been enacted, such as the Right to Information and media self-regulating law, that have made it easier to practice our profession. He admitted that there was not a single journalist in jail for doing their work, although it did not stop him from regurgitating old news about killings and arrests almost half a decade ago.

But what he can back to, over and over again, was just how much members of the Rwandan media censor themselves. The Chairman of the Rwanda Media Commission is quoted saying, ““Self-censorship is flowing like blood in the arteries and veins. There is no censorship, but there are things that journalists don’t do because they are not confident of what will happen. We are not valued as a profession”.

Another independent journalist (whatever that moniker means) is quoted thus: “My site has been closed down 10 times, and then they just closed my IP address. I have been taken five times to a secret prison and questioned for hours. So I had to negotiate with them, and we made a compromise. Having some sources in the military, they tell me when they have issues, and when pressure rises I take down my site to break down the pressure.”

I want to examine the latter quote and point out the simple inconsistencies. This journalist wants to tell me that he is driven to a secret prison (lets pretend that there is proof that they exist) and then let off with nary a scratch after negotiating his way out of trouble? I don’t know about the rest of you, but if indeed we have secret prisons, I cannot think of why they would want that journalist in question. Looking at his online publication, I see it dominated by foreign news, local press releases and gossip. For example, if you read his paper, you will discover that ‘Somali women are most beautiful ladies in Africa’ (that’s an actual headline).

I am not calling this particular journalist a liar; however, our profession has been besieged by mercenary-types, looking for a quick buck and a quick visa to the West. So, forgive me if I take his testimony with a pinch of salt.

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Now lets examine the topic that the CPJ report harped on and on about: our media’s propensity to self-censor. I for one don’t think that blaming the State for self-censorship is fair; we need to be truthful about the economics of running a media house. A media house is a business, first and foremost. It doesn’t matter how well- researched your articles and how hard hitting they are; if you are unable to pay your bills you will not survive. Its all about advertising and sales. That’s the nature of the business.

So, if you live in a country where the State is the biggest economic player (such as ours), it is common sense that you gear your content to what your biggest advertiser wants. You cannot spend all day rabidly hammering (often unfairly) the very entity that you then go, cap-in-hand, to get money from.

What some of us have called self-censorship, I call common sense. So, instead of playing for the galleries, let us be honest with ourselves. We CHOOSE to censor ourselves NOT because we are worried about being sent to jail but because we are too dependent on one source of revenue, the government teat.

The image of the state, muzzling the press is simply untrue. All we have to do is look online and see what exactly unfolds in the blogosphere. I, personally, have written hard-hitting posts and I have named names. I have started online petitions and questioned some people’s intelligence. Have I ever received a single threatening call from an irate official (never mind a drive to a secret prison)? No. Actually, funny enough, I’ve often later had great working relations with most of them.

Instead of crying self-censorship and complaining about government ads, why don’t you give the public what it wants? An interesting, well-researched story that impacts their lives. They will then BUY your product. Why don’t you stop depending on the mega advertisers and instead work on getting more SME’s to invest in your product? Why don’t you embrace the online world?

I can bet you all one thing; as soon as there is a large enough private sector that is willing to spend some advertising dollars, we will see the end of ‘self-censorship’.

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