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Looking Back

May 15, 2007

You may leave Rwanda, but it doesn’t leave you. I’m back in Canada with Emmanuel’s genocide story in my head. And Theogene’s take on the process of forgiveness. And Emmy on the difficulties of practicing journalism in Rwanda. And the light in Jean-Bosco’s eyes when he talked about how his TV story helped fix the potholes on Kigali streets.

They were four of my students and I like to think they taught me as much as I taught them. Only half of my time in Rwanda was spent in the classroom, but that time was a rich vein. At its best, teaching for me is a joyful negotiation: I’ll give you something, and you give me something back. Occasionally, I get the best of the bargain. This was one of those times.

But it all happened accidentally. I was never supposed to be a Rwandan classroom at all. Blame it on a few loose words.

Ever since my first reporting trip there in 1994, Rwanda has taken up residence in a small corner of my brain, in the form of an anguished question mark. How could this genocide possibly have happened? When I signed up for the Rwanda Initiative last year, I thought this might be a unique (and oblique) way of getting me closer to an answer. I agreed to spend three weeks in the newsroom of TV Rwanda. I would help the reporters develop some professional reporting skills. In return, I would use those contacts to pursue some stories of my own, as a freelance journalist.

But something happened. In my first week in Kigali, I wrote a blog that upset some influential people, and these people decided that I would not be welcome in the country’s only TV newsroom. Something about my obsession with “shadows” that one still finds in Rwandan life. It was my first civics lesson in 21st-century Rwanda: Be careful—very careful-- what you say about life in the aftermath of the genocide. People are listening and reading, and weighing every word, every nuance, every opinion, especially if there might be an international audience. Some things in Rwanda may only be whispered. On reflection, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Rwanda is still in post-traumatic shock. When a visitor comes and unburdens himself of an opinion that may be even mildly critical of the government, it will set off alarm bells.

As a result, instead of going to TV Rwanda, I was re-routed to the campus of the National University in Butare. I would be teaching the fundamentals of broadcast writing to a group of journalism and communication students. As it turned out, the fuss over my blog was useful preparation for me as a teacher: It gave me insight into the environment that these prospective communicators would be launched into after graduation. If they decided on journalism, they would have to learn to walk a fine line. Tightrope walking is not necessarily a bad thing in this business: if nothing else, you learn to step carefully, you learn balance, you learn to be intensely aware of your environment. Up on the high wire, you learn to focus. Or else.

Happily, a number of my students also worked at TV Rwanda in their spare time. I could watch their work on the nightly news. We could discuss it. And day-by-day, I began to see things that they could do to improve their product—to create a better newscast—without risking the displeasure of their bosses, who have to be so mindful of politics. I told them that this was vital work: Television news can be—should be—a forum for public dialogue, and Rwanda was in urgent need of as much public dialogue as it could generate. Here are some of the things I told them:

1. “Let me hear more voices, and see more faces, in your news reports. Average people, talking about things that matter to them, in simple language. This is where politics starts. People talking to other people. Make your newscast a more democratic platform.”
2. “Don’t be in such awe of the politicians. Drop the titles, like ‘honorable.’ Ask them tougher questions. Be polite, but politely skeptical. Don’t take everything they say at face value. Ask them, politely, to back up their statements with facts.”
3. “Convince your editors to expand their news agendas. Rwandan domestic news consists almost entirely of press conferences and seminars. The images are boring to the point of catatonia. TV news should not be a government bulletin board, it should be an informed conversation. Take the cameras outside, videotape people where they live and work and play, and tell stories that have a greater social import. Rwanda is full of powerful human stories. Tell these stories. Over time, both your editors, and the politicians who rely on television to ‘get their message out,’ will see that this makes for far more compelling TV news.”
4. “In your writing, try to simplify, and try to stay away from bureaucratic jargon. You are professionals. Don’t parrot press releases. You are not publicists. You are journalists trained to think critically. Let that be reflected in the language and the scope of your reporting.”
5. “Let me hear more people talk, especially in close-up. I want to see their eyes, glance into their souls. And don’t paraphrase them. Don’t put your narration over video of their lips moving. Give them voice, even if it’s in an unfamiliar language. That’s how you get authenticity.”
6. “You, the reporters, are the agents of change. This change does not have to be confrontational. These things I’m talking about are not subversive, they’re common sense. So tactfully convince your bosses, convince officials, heck, tell the president, that it is in everyone’s interest to develop a more watchable, balanced and independent news media. It will be more work for you, but ultimately, much more satisfying. And it’s an exciting enterprise: you’ll be pioneers.”

And so on. Some of the students complained that, in their work, they were constrained by what they called “the editorial line.” One student called their work “appeasement.” That sounded dangerously blunt, but it may hold some truth. Public broadcasting in Rwanda is not public broadcasting in Canada. “Freedom of the press,” in the Rwandan context, is seen by many as a dangerous two-edged sword that needs to be managed and contained. This argument has some strong historic underpinnings—in 1994, for example, leading radio stations and newspapers were organs of genocidal propaganda.

But I also got the feeling that my students were holding themselves back, even censoring their own instincts. One student who worked regularly at TV Rwanda bluntly called it a culture of “laziness.” Many of the reporters, he said, just didn’t want to do the work needed to expand the boundaries of their craft. We didn’t have the time to explore this further in the classroom; it would be a great subject for some future master’s or doctoral thesis.

With the lessons out of the way, I asked the students to talk about themselves, their own life histories, and their own motivations. To my pleasant surprise, they were expansive and candid—more candid, in fact, than any students I’ve ever taught in Canada. And this is where my learning came. I learned things about how they viewed the limits of forgiveness: where the personal anguish and loss they suffered in the genocide came crashing up again the social imperative of national unity. One student gave me insight into reconciliation of the “heart,” as opposed to reconciliation by political decree. As they talked, they gave me hope that the next generation of Rwandan journalists does indeed have a strong voice and a social conscience that will help to break ground and heal wounds.

All that’s needed, perhaps, is a little more oxygen, a little more empowerment—an acceptance by authorities that the rewards of more open expression in Rwanda, may well outweigh the risks. Especially if the voices doing the expressing belong to people like Emmanuel and Theo and Emmy and Jean-Bosco . . .

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