A missed opportunity: Canadian journalists in Rwanda
(Published in The Tyee, Sept. 5, 2007)
Earlier this month, John Honderich, the former publisher of Canada’s biggest paper, the Toronto Star, wrote an impassioned opinion piece in the Star about the sorry state of press freedom in Rwanda. Honderich was upset with Rwandan president Paul Kagame. It seems that last month, Kagame ordered the sacking of an editor at the New Times, Rwanda’s only daily newspaper. The editor was responsible for a bit of lèse majesté; namely, he’d allowed the publication of a photo of Kagame that the president felt was undignified.
(You can find my documentary Rwanda: Out of the Darkness here)
“Strange indeed,” Honderich tut-tutted about Kagame’s latest behavior, in the tone of an uncle disappointed by a wayward nephew.
But it wasn’t strange at all. In fact, Kagame was being perfectly consistent. And Honderich should know. He is a familiar figure in the offices of the New Times. Over the past two years, he’s graciously volunteered several weeks of his time there as an unpaid consultant. He knows that the New Times is, in every way (except officially) a mouthpiece for the Kagame government.
He knows that Rwandan journalists are browbeaten and co-opted by the Rwanda government to do its bidding and spread its message. He knows that the newspaper, like Rwandan state TV, is effectively a bulletin board for Kagame’s political and social agenda, and that reporters who stray from a rigid editorial line put their jobs (and even personal safety) at risk. As a result, they censor themselves.
He surely knows that, on April 20, the editor of a fortnightly newspaper, Umurabyo, was sentenced to one year in prison, and fined more than $5000, for publishing a column critical of Rwanda’s justice system. (The charges included “divisionism and sectarianism.”) He surely knows that reporters for independent newspapers are sometimes harassed, beaten and even driven into exile for challenging the government’s agenda.
He knows that only this past summer, the government shut down an independent paper, The Weekly Post, on a bureaucratic pretext. He knows that Rwandan correspondents for international media (the BBC, the Voice of America) have been accused of “treason” by the state press for their critical reporting of Rwandan affairs.
Honderich knows all these things because he is an acute, sensitive newsman as well as an adroit news executive. But it was only after he left Rwanda that he went on record to chastise Kagame and his officials for their high-handed treatment of journalists and editors. While in Kigali, it seems, Honderich was far less vocal. Indeed, at an official function in late May, as he was preparing to return home, Honderich leant his professional authority to a gathering that included the country’s Information Minister, as well as Dr. David Himbara, an adviser in Kagame’s office who also happens to be a board member of the New Times.
According to the state media, who write the things they’re supposed to write, Himbara talked about building a culture of “open debate and transparency” in Rwanda. Honderich made his contribution by enthusing about the New Times’ “bright future.” He added something about how the paper was “boxing beyond its weight class.” All in all, his performance bordered on timidity, a missed opportunity to put a little starch in Canadian international co-operation, to put our principles where our money is. (Honderich did not reply to my emailed questions about his actions in Rwanda, or about my criticisms of how the New Times cravenly does the government’s work.)
Even though Honderich did an about-face with his commentary when he returned home, the incident raises questions for all Canadians involved in development programs in the Third World: To what degree should the fear of offending a host government prompt volunteers to soft-pedal professional and ethical standards in the course of their work? When is it okay to bite your tongue for the “good of the project,” and when do you stand on principle, even at the risk of being shut down?
The questions are especially tangled for Canadian journalists in Rwanda: How do you teach professionalism in an environment when open inquiry, and speaking truth to power, are actively (and even forcefully) discouraged? In Rwanda, several promising journalism students I spoke to said they would probably seek work outside the field when they graduated--in public relations, or in the NGO field--rather than struggle with the constraints on the media. How do they feel when visiting journalists fail to confront a repressive system?
Should we not insist that the government guarantee certain fundamental principles in the practice of journalism before we agree to take part in a development program? And when the state steps over the line, and violates a basic principle (like arbitrarily firing editors for their editorial decisions) should we not, as trainers and teachers, make a strong and unequivocal stand?
Honderich, it must be said, had an important constraint on his freedom to talk candidly. He wasn’t in Rwanda on his own, but rather as part of a Canadian taxpayer-funded program called the Rwanda Initiative. Under its auspices, dozens of Canadian reporters, photographers, editors, and journalism interns have traveled to Rwanda over the past two years. The objective is to help “professionalize” the Rwandan media in the wake of that country’s 1994 genocide, an event that devastated virtually all of the country’s institutions, including the media.
I was one of those volunteers: I spent two weeks this past spring teaching broadcast journalism at the National University of Rwanda. The Rwanda Initiative provided housing, and paid all my costs.
The Initiative is the brainchild of Carleton University journalism professor Allan Thompson. Two years ago, Thompson sold President Kagame and other Rwandan officials and academics on his idea. Why not let experienced Canadian news people donate their time and skills to teach young Rwandans the rudiments of balanced, responsible journalism? At the same time, Rwanda would provide an international training ground for dozens of Carleton journalism students looking for some foreign seasoning.
Kagame agreed. Why wouldn’t he? The Initiative would cost him almost nothing, and Rwandan journalists (and journalism students) would learn some much-needed practical and technical skills. Also, Kagame, a skilled political strategist, must have reckoned that his personal embrace of the Initiative could come in handy against critics inside, and outside, Rwanda who might want to challenge his “democratic” values.
The problem is, of course, that at heart, Kagame is not a democrat at all. A former military leader who has been likened to Napoleon, he’s more of a “soft totalitarian” who sees most reporters as an irritation, an unschooled rabble, even a political obstacle. (He was elected president with 90% of the vote, a result that says as much about his silencing of opposition voices, as about his electoral charisma.) He treats the New Times and its editorial staff as an extension of the state, and the newspaper’s editors comply. As a senior editor told me: “We do not fear to say that we echo the government’s position on most . . . things.” If that means putting a flattering photo of Kagame on the front page every day, so be it. As the editor explained, somewhat sheepishly: “The fact is that the president makes news.”
Indeed, after last month’s sacking of the editor, reporters and editors at the paper were told that the government and the New Times were to be regarded “like husband and wife.”
Charles Gordon, a former columnist with the Ottawa Citizen who spent two months with the Initiative in Rwanda, argues that the project’s primary job is education, not confrontation. “The best we can do is . . . to give them (the students) a sense of values so they can conduct themselves in a professional way at some point in the future.” He said Canadian journalists should think twice before urging Rwandans to confront the system. “Given Rwanda’s history,” said Gordon, “I can understand why the students may not want to charge the barricades.”
But it’s not only Rwandan students and journalists who have to deal with an intransigent system. I was in Rwanda for only a few days before I got a first-hand taste of the president’s sensitivity to criticism. I attended a genocide anniversary ceremony at which Kagame was the keynote speaker and I wrote a blog about the event. I commiserated with the hundreds of Rwandans bused into the event who had to sit under the hot sun listening to hours of speeches, while the VIPs sat under tents and sipped bottled water. I thought it was interesting that Kagame, who has a fluent command of English, spoke exclusively in Rwanda’s native tongue, and I speculated that this might have been a slight to the gathered diplomats. I wrote that his criticisms of the French government, and the role it played in the 1994 genocide, might have been a little heavy-handed.
I filed the blog to my website, and forgot about it. Several days later, however, I got a curious phone call. A senior official of Rwanda TV, where I was scheduled to do some media training, said she had read my blog, and was disturbed by what I had written. She said there were things about Rwanda that “you clearly don’t understand.” Subsequently, I was notified that I was no longer welcome at the offices of TV Rwanda. They were not interested in accommodating a Western journalist who spent so much time rooting around in the “shadows” of Rwandan life.
I later learned, from a good source, that Rwanda’s Intelligence Service had spotted my blog. The “watchers” notified the president’s office and the decision was made that I should not be allowed to bring my cynicism into the newsroom.
I was not the only Initiative media trainer in Rwanda to catch the censorial eye of the authorities. In September 2006, Gil Courtemanche, a columnist for Le Devoir in Montreal and the author of A Sunday by the Pool in Kigali, wrote a column that was sharply critical of Kagame’s governance. As a result, an Intelligence officer visited the National University to learn more about the Canadian and his activities in Rwanda. But Courtemanche had already caught a flight home.
Another Canadian newsman, Gary Dimmock of the Ottawa Citizen, has been filing blogs from Rwanda that are bluntly critical of the government. Dimmock, who specializes in investigatory journalism, worked under the auspices of the Rwanda Initiative for an opposition weekly in Kigali called Newsline. Dimmock told me that the government was so annoyed at what he was writing, that it ordered a local reporter to attack Dimmock’s credibility in a column of his own. The reporter agreed, reluctantly, “because he had to put food on the table.”
“Sadly,” says Dimmock, “journalists (in Rwanda) who dare to criticize or even challenge the Kagame regime are treated as criminals. These ordinary decent reporters, and there are many, need help from the international press to one day secure genuine press freedom.” That help, he added, should come from groups like the Initiative who are in a position “to truly fight for press freedom and make as much noise until there is a new dawn.”
These and other critical voices have put the Rwanda Initiative, and its founder Allan Thompson, in a difficult position. “We’re not a media watchdog. That’s never been our role,” Thompson says. “Frankly, I don't think we would be able to function on the ground in Rwanda, or make any kind of difference at all, if we made it our mandate to function as yet another media watchdog.” He said that this was the job of groups like Human Rights Watch and Reporters without Borders.
“In the final analysis, the only way we can make any difference in Rwanda and promote press freedom, even incrementally, is to be able to operate on the ground by sending dozens of Canadian journalists there."
Thompson agrees that the Rwandan government’s media policies “generally do not promote media freedom” but he said that independent newspapers and radio stations are allowed to operate and that the Initiative “can do more good by biding its time” and working from within the Rwanda media institutions to influence change. He noted that the Initiative is making “some headway” in a cause of a more vibrant media; for example, it has been able to send journalists to several independent media outlets in Rwanda, and they are able to work without restrictions.
I don’t feel this goes far enough. I believe that as role models for aspiring journalists in Rwanda, we have a moral obligation to insist on certain principles before co-operating with the government, and agreeing to work in Rwanda’s classrooms and newsrooms. We are there, after all, to teach, and when it comes to the practice of journalism, certain lessons are paramount. Like, editors should not be accountable to the president’s office; politicians should not arbitrarily decide who can publish and who can’t; and journalists should not live in fear of jail, of dismissal, or of physical injury if they write what they believe is the truth. If we don’t promulgate and defend these principles robustly and even aggressively, all other lessons—how to write a story, how to edit video, how to conduct an interview—become meaningless, and even though our hearts may be in the right place, we risk perpetuating a servile, frightened and deferential media.