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Self-regulation could strengthen journalists in Rwanda

Published on: 21-03-2014

Rwandan journalists are visiting Sweden to learn about how Swedish media works with self-regulation. The visit is part of Sida’s support to strengthen freedom of expression and media development in Rwanda.

– We need a greater press freedom in Rwanda, but journalists also need to become more responsible and follow ethical guidelines. You have come a long way in Sweden in terms of self-regulation and we are still far behind, said the journalist Fred Muvunyi during a study visit in Sweden, together with other journalists and key actors in Rwanda’s media scene.

The media took an active role during the genocide in Rwanda 20 years ago, which has resulted in a limited freedom of expression and laws against "genocide ideology", which in turn has led to self-censorship in journalism. A media reform process was initiated some years ago, resulting in five new media laws that were adopted by the Parliament in 2013. At the same time, an independent self-regulatory body – Rwanda Media Commission – was established. Fred Muvunyi, who is the chairman of the commission, has a big task ahead of him to advocate for greater freedom of the press, while the journalists themselves must take a greater responsibility for what they communicate.

– What we need is a change of mindset about media’s role and its relationship with politicians. It was impressive to visit the Swedish Radio and see their level of editorial independence, and that no politicians can just come in and tell them what to say. In my opinion, the Rwandan media, with radio station Mille Collines in the lead, was involved in the genocide because there was no separation between the roles of the politicians and the media.

The visit to Sweden is part of an initiative to develop a programme proposal for support to media development in Rwanda. The programme proposal is being developed by Swedish Radio Media Development Office (SRMDO) in cooperation with the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, and may in addition to study visits also include support to local radio and public service, digitalising of the Rwandan radio and television archives, training and support to journalists and investments in a creative center for youth interested in media.

Collin Haba from the Rwanda Journalist Association thought that it’s not mainly the lack of press freedom that prevent journalists from doing a good job, but the lack of professionalism.

– The main challenge now is responsibility; to develop the dividing line between freedom of expression and the protection of people so that the media does not abuse their privacy. We are still in the process of those discussions.

Low salaries impair ethics

The poor economic viability among the country’s media companies and low salaries for journalists are contributing factors to why ethical guidelines are not always being held in high regard. A paid trip to cover an event, a free lunch or payment for writing a text can be hard to refuse for journalists who can barely pay their bills. Moreover, many newly graduated journalists quickly leave the profession as they are being recruited to better paid PR jobs.

Ethical guidelines could become an important part of higher journalism studies, Collin Haba suggested. Another initiative would be to try to build trust between journalists and politicians, getting the latter to realize that it is the journalists’ job to ensure that the politicians act in the interest of the people, which in turn can increase faith among voters.

A growing interest among the general public to make their voices heard through social media has also contributed to a change of the media climate, he explained. When the newspaper New Times finally dared to put a comment field next to their web articles, the readership increased fivefold. He also talked about the "twitter army” emerging on the internet and influencing politicians.

– When we wanted to get access to data on how the government had spent money on a sports event, they wouldn’t give us any information, despite several official requests. When our readers then acted and caused an outcry against politicians on twitter, the figures were presented before long.

By Sida

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