Fight for your rights, Kagame tells scribes
When the UN panel of experts accused Rwanda of backing rebels in the eastern DR Congo, international media was the first to report the story, leaving local and regional journalists scrambling to catch up.
And while many expressed doubt about the allegations, and reported the government’s denial, it was once again left to foreign journalists to expose the chief author of the report as an apologist of the 1994 Rwanda genocide against Tutsis.
For President Paul Kagame who addressed the fifth EAC media summit held Kigali last week, this reveals the status of the local media, which he said is still too weak and with no capacity – or interest – to report east African issues. “As a result, we have a media that can’t tell our own story and have instead left the role to foreigners who have their own agenda for Africa,” Kagame told media practitioners from EAC member states.
For people who are used to criticizing others, the remarks were stinging, forcing them to request a debate with the President on the issue. This he granted, and he repeated his assertion, saying the local media’s inefficiencies, such as failing to verify allegations for facts before reporting, are partly to blame for the sensationally reported lies that Rwanda is backing the M23 rebels.
For instance, none of the journalists in the room had visited Congo to verify the situation on the ground, yet they had all reported on it, with some even analyzing the issue (probably using information read on international press websites). Therefore, Kagame concluded, the international press had managed to set the agenda on a local story.
A good example of this, the President pointed out, is that many of the journalists in the room didn’t know the meaning of the tag M23 – which refers to March 23, a day on which a group of disgruntled soldiers signed an agreement with Joseph Kabila’s government, which agreed it would address their grievances related to mostly to their welfare. When it failed to honor the agreement, the soldiers mounted a mutiny and became known as M23.
The importance of this information is that it makes the accusation that Rwanda trained and armed the rebels rather shaky. M23 are trained soldiers, Kagame explained, with their own arms and uniforms – facts which the regional media should have found if they really controlled their own story.
And indeed, the information was obviously new to many journalists in the room, who hastily pulled out their notebooks, momentarily forgetting it was a debate, not an interview.
However, as Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda pointed out, there is also a problem of lack of access to information and the people with real information, presidents included, who prefer granting interviews to international journalists rather than local ones. Yet Kagame retorted that this probably because local media have failed to impose their presence, leaving the space to the international press.
“We have created a situation that suggests that the international press calls the shots, therefore they are the best to carry a message across; we both need to correct that, because we have seen it’s not true,” Kagame said.
To this, a Burundian journalist replied with the question how local media can impose their presence when governments persecute members of the press, prompting Kagame to advise journalists to stand up and fight for their rights but using proper channels. “It’s not easy and it takes courage to do so, but it’s better to fail while trying than failing without trying at all,” he said.
As for cases of jailed journalists, he said, it is vital to scrutinize the judicial process leading to that situation rather than looking at who is involved. He also pointed out that there had been incidents where journalists too, ‘excute’ others in their stories with without giving the accused natural justice or fairness. “Justice should be for all, not just journalists, and fighting for justice should not be about numbers but courage to defend the truth,” Kagame observed.
In addition, the President also pointed out that so-called criticism by the media is sometimes forced, and due to the fact that journalists fear to be branded as corrupt would they write positive stories about their government. “That is what media independence should be about: writing what you believe in without having to be bought or fearing to be seen as bought off,” Kagame argued.
By and large, the journalists agreed with the President that indeed the media in East Africa have serious capacity issues in areas of training, information access and environment, among others, all of which undermine their capacity to tell ‘the East African story.’
Francis Babu, who owns a radio station in Uganda, however observed that media houses are often poor and their owners are more interested in profit than training or building capacity of journalists. Yet Kagame replied that it would be in their own interest to invest in it, and not wait for the government to take an initiative, since some governments might find it convenient to have a clueless media.
Thus, the man who is routinely branded by western media as an oppressor of journalists, chatted and discussed for two hours with media practitioners, who in the end asked him to be their goodwill ambassador to other governments. Kagame accepted, but on condition that he wouldn’t be paid a salary. “Because in that case, I would have to be accountable.”