Reform or die: Building a critical media in Rwanda

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Green Party head Frank Habineza speaking to local media 

Two weeks or so ago, I watched the In Focus talk show on Rwanda Television that focused on a seminal topic, ‘Building a Critical Media-Evaluating performance of media in reporting key issues facing society’.

The show’s host, veteran newsman Eugene Anangwe, and the three guests, all veterans of the local media environment, spent an hour attempting to dissect the failings, opportunities and challenges of the local media.

Watching the show, I attempted to follow their conversation through a few different ‘ears and eyes’, namely as a former journalist, a present day professional working in the field of communication, and finally as a normal consumer of local content.

What I saw and what I heard that Sunday night was nothing new; the four were simply rehashing old journalistic arguments that I’d heard since the late 90’s. They talked about issues of self-censorship, access to information, lack of training, lack of capital and tiny pool of local advertisers. I’m not saying that I did not enjoy it; far from it. They all sounded like the smart journalists they all were. The conversation was somewhat bookish, almost ivory-tower like. It sounded like a talk I would hear in journalism class.  Which as a former journalist, I thoroughly enjoyed.

What I didn’t see, unfortunately, was real self-examination. Which was a shame because they really had an opportunity to do a deep dive into the future of journalism and media in this country.

When we media people talk about critical journalism, what we are often talking about is reporting that has an anti-establishment slant to it. Critical media is supposed to question and hold power to account. And it’s supposed to do it in the name of the common people.  At least that’s the theory anyway.

This sense of mission, and overly inflated sense of importance (in my opinion) is why for the last couple of centuries, media has called itself, ‘the fourth estate’.

In pre-revolutionary Europe, there was thought to be three ‘estate’s that governed all life in the nation, namely the nobility (the first), the clergy (the second), and the commoners (the third). The media, gave itself the moniker the Fourth Estate due to the influence that it had on society. It could create celebrities and cause governments to fall in one fell swoop. It was truly powerful. What that was then, this is now.

Instead of talking of talking about how to build a critical media, in the classical sense, the four media veterans should have looked at the entire subject in a different way. They should have asked themselves this question first, was the media even critical in the first place? And when I say critical I mean the other definition of the word critical, ‘indispensable’.

They should have been asking themselves, is our profession truly indispensable? Are people’s lives truly enriched by our presence? If people do not consume our product, do they feel empty? Do they ravenously seek out our offerings?

If people did, then issues of funding and lack of access to information would not exist. Business people would rush to fund media houses and information would flow into newsrooms like a flood.

The media used to be the gatekeepers of information. Editors and media owners decided what information people were given. Those golden years are long gone.

The special place in society that media gave itself no longer exists because, among other things, the emergence of social media. Today, everyone can not only create content, they can disseminate it globally as well. The only way that any local media house will survive is by making itself indispensable to its audience. And the only way that that will happen is if they truly understand their audience. They need to provide what their audience wants and they need to be the only ones providing it. And that is hardest part; will our media become humble enough to prostrate itself to the will of the masses? That’s the billion-franc question.

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