1 August 2011

Rwanda: The Ishema Case Proved the Local Media Can Regulate Themselves


I know you have all followed this debate about whether or not the Rwandan media are ready for self-regulation, and you are perhaps tired of the subject.

Yet the goings-on over the past few days present solid evidence which, depending on which side of the debate you are, may further illuminate either argument.

I am one of the supporters of the plan to replace media statutory regulation with auto-regulation in Rwanda.

As such, my perspective about the outrageous and ferocious defamation of the President of the Republic, contained in a supposed op-ed in Ishema newspaper, re-enforces my position in this debate.

This column has no intentions of reproducing a single word in that barrage of insults, other than stating that it was rather bizarre and suspicious that an article published in an exclusively Kinyarwanda newspaper, was in English text, under a Kinyarwanda headline!

Ever since the government decided that it was high time the local media regulated themselves, four months ago, debate has ensued, with even some among the media practitioners themselves unsure whether we were ready to handle the job by ourselves.

Some colleagues reluctantly took up assignments to help lay the ground for this auto-regulation process, with others choosing to sit on the fence while mutely questioning the feasibility of the shift.

The self-regulation move has divided opinion even among government quarters, although little can be said of the ordinary people's views as they have hardly been engaged on the subject.

Indeed when The News of the World phone-hacking scandal erupted in the UK, recently, some of those opposed to the idea of entrusting local media practitioners with regulation responsibilities sought to use it to argue their case.

And so when the Ishema newspaper published that disgraceful issue, it seemed to have compounded the cynics' argument. In fact, over the weekend, I was locked in a passionate debate with a group of media colleagues, some of whom suggested that the Ishema's excesses had indeed vindicated them.

I objected to their argument, pointing out that, whereas the tabloid's actions might have brought shame on the whole media fraternity, the general reaction to the scandal, both from the other practitioners and the state, proved we're ready for self-regulation.

It's admirable how the media fraternity has professionally handled the Ishema case. Last Tuesday, the Forum for Private Newspapers, for which the proprietor and Managing Director of Ishema newspaper, Fidele Gakire, was secretary general, at least until then, suspended the publication from the association for six months.

In turn, Mr Gakire recognized his publication's blunders, apologized to his peers, and humbly accepted their reprimand. He went on to publicly regret the publication of the highly obnoxious and defamatory article in the paper's latest issue, plus a letter of apology he, himself, voluntarily wrote to the victim of the article in question -Paul Kagame.

Of course his excuse that the article was published without his knowledge is pathetic, although it also helped cast more light on how most local newsrooms are run.

Interestingly, the paper's Managing Editor resigned citing the same reasons - that the issue in question was published without his involvement!

The other commendable factor in this whole saga was that state organs entirely left it to the media practitioners to deal with the matter, and that way disarmed the usual suspects who would have loved to exploit the situation to advance their agenda against the government.

That Ishema's owners and managers have not visited any police station, prosecution office, or the Media High Council, or subjected to any form of harassment and intimidation - as Mr Gakire has personally testified - demonstrates a civilized, progressive and tolerant attitude on behalf of local law-enforcers and watchdogs.

This is a far cry from the attitude that was typical of these institutions some years back. There's no doubt that the article, by far, crossed the line and, therefore, there would have been nothing wrong if any criminal proceedings had been initiated.

Mr Gakire acknowledged that himself in his apology to the President. However, by behaving the way they did, these state organs have rendered huge credence to the government's decision to end statutory media regulation, and to bestow upon journalists the responsibility to set and safeguard professional media standards.

That gutter journalism remains part of the Rwandan media landscape should not cloud the need for self-regulation. I don't expect auto-regulation to be straightforward. It is a rough and possibly endless journey, as The News of The World's phone-hacking scandal reminded us all.

However, I believe it is a practice worth undertaking; yes, even in Rwanda. Some colleagues in the local media, who were previously cynical about the move, have started to realize how feasible it is.

"Initially, I did not believe it would work...that people would sit down one of their own and rebuke them in such a professional and emphatic way," said one of them, in reference to the Forum for Private Newspapers' action against Ishema.

Some will still drag their feet but they will gradually convert, as journalists continue to hold each other to account.

Having said that, urgently need to finalise on the Code of Ethics document, which has already been validated by the media fraternity, and use it to engage and solicit goodwill from other stakeholders.

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