Days 18-19: journalism today/newsroom visits

Tonight is staff appreciation night at Thompson (as in Allan Thompson) Manor. We’ve managed to wrangle a barbeque and a massive amount of food and Allan and the boys are outside nudging the charcoal to life. Some girls are in the kitchen chopping vegetables.

We’re going to have a huge meal and feed all the wonderful staff who have been taking such good care of us here: our cook, Mama Yves, our security guard Issa, and our cleaning lady, Bernadette. Allan even managed to procure some red wine for us.

We officially finished our classes today and we’re feeling celebratory. Pop music is blasting through the speakers and people are singing and dancing. I can hear laughter from the porch outside.

The last two days were occupied with newsroom tours and presentations on our journalist partners. We were lucky enough to have a variety of candid conversations with journalists who presented a diverse range of opinions about the media landscape here.

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Some said that there are restrictions to press freedom here, and that they have received mysterious phone calls from government officials asking them to change their content or cut a story. This fits with the narratives of oppression we hear in documents from Western NGOs and watchdogs.

The majority journalists, however, seemed to feel that even if the media here is not completely unrestricted, things are changing. In the last year or two Rwanda has introduced an Access to Information law, an independent Media Commissioner, and declared that the Rwanda Broadcasting Agency will be shifting their role from “state broadcaster” to a more BBC-style “public broadcaster.”

Whether these measures will prove effective has yet to be seen, and skeptics might view it all as an illusion, some nice words to placate the critics, but many journalists here seem really hopeful that change is coming. They also seem quite understanding of why change may take time. In a country that was once lured to genocide through hate media, most journalists here seem to feel it is their personal duty to promote peace and development and avoid any story that may create “division.”

A journalist at one location asked Allan, “In a country with a history like Rwanda’s, how long do you think it will take for us to have a free press?” Allan said he thought it was a generational thing, that the media—and country as a whole—needs to get to a point where the journalists and people in power have grown up in peace. I looked to D., N., and A. and thought, “these are the people that are going to make that happen.”

Beyond political troubles, the studios faced a number of other challenges: a world that is transitioning to digital (but a population that remains largely offline), the public/private divide in funding, balancing hard news with money-making entertainment programs, trying to keep up with technology while operating on a low budget, and operating in a country where English is the official language of education, French used to be, and almost everybody speaks Kinyarwanda.

In total, we visited six different outlets in two days, including multiple radio and TV studios, a couple online/new media publications, and a traditional print media house. Along with conversations with our journalists and guest speakers throughout the week, we’ve been given an amazing amount of insight into just how complicated Rwanda’s journalism world is.

After our party tonight we have some days off before wrapping up the course and leaving the country on Saturday. Most of the crew is off on various tours tomorrow and Thursday, but I’m going to stay in Kigali and hang out with the Rwandan students instead. It’s starting to feel like everything is coming to a close. It makes me realize how much I’ve learned, and how much I’ll miss this place and these people.

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