The New Times (Kigali)

Rwanda: Media and Business - Why Rwandan Media Need Help

opinion

Rwanda's media industry, just like other sectors, has been undergoing a reconstruction process and with the liberalisation of the sector more than ten years ago, we are now talking of over 60 media outlets both in the print and electronic media.

There is also now sizeable private investment in the sector. Figures from Rwanda Development Board (RDB) indicate that over the last ten years, $13.6 million has been invested in the sector.

The industry has also attracted leading regional media players like the Nation Media Group. More investment has been also registered in the printing sector.

Government has also been active through investment in 'soft' infrastructure. Key landmarks in this area include the enactment of the Access to Information Law and enactment of the necessary legislation for media self-regulation.

These changes, especially the latter, have generated a lot of excitement amongst some media players who have previously criticised government of maintaining a tough stance with regard to media issues. For some of these people, with these reforms, the media seem to have been finally 'set free'. This is simplistic thinking.

I have consistently argued that the biggest challenge that the media in Rwanda faces is not the lack of freedom but lack of skills and financial muscle to ably hold government and others accountable.

Yes we have over 60 media outlets but what is the quality of their content? What is the capacity of journalists to digest issues so as to ably inform and educate the masses? What is the capacity of media outlets to operate profitable businesses?

Popular FM radio stations in Rwanda are those that stream music and run call-in programmes where listeners make song requests. This is partly attributed to limited knowledge and skills on the part of journalists to ably debate issues affecting 'the person on the street.'

There are times when I have, by coincidence, tuned in onto a radio programme where a presenter is requesting listeners to wish him 'a goodnight.' And thereafter callers jam the telephone lines!

The absence of serious programming where issues that affect the local people are discussed is an indication of the gap that needs to be filled if the media is to live its tag as the 'Fourth Estate.'

In the print media, the situation is not any different, if not worse. Rwanda has only two dailies; one in English, the other in Kinyarwanda. And most of the publications that claim to be weeklies often go for months without producing a single issue. They lack a viable financial model to stay afloat and reporters lack the skills to ply their trade.

We now have a public broadcaster, the Rwanda Broadcasting Agency (RBA), which operates the only free view television station in the country. The quality of programming leaves a lot to be desired. There is a glaring lack of local content.

Of recent there has been a surge of on-line media. A number of on-line outlets have sprung up but the issue of knowledge and skills remains crosscutting.

On the financial perspective, most of these outlets barely meet their operational costs.

So which way for Rwandan media? There is no doubt that we are living in an information age where access to and dissemination of information will determine how fast countries develop. For the media to be a conduit of this information, it will be required to take a two-pronged approach; professionalism and profitability.

It is more like the chicken-and-egg debate but whatever shape it takes, it should result in more vibrant and responsible media.

Media outlets will have to insist on professionalism, they cannot afford to compromise on quality if they are to win the trust of consumers of their information and advertisers. That's how brands are built.

Investment opportunities the media sector in Rwanda offers are immense. While some media houses are, for example, pondering a switch to online publications because of dwindling circulation revenues, here we are faced with another challenge altogether; satisfying the demand for newspapers.

Government cannot afford to 'cut the cord' now. Its role in supporting the development of the media is still needed. An indirect way of doing this is through increasing the budget for its media activities in the hope that when media outlets earn from advertising revenues, they will be in position to hire and retain competent staff and improve on content.

While it is important for government to put in place 'soft' infrastructure like Self-regulation, without operational media outlets, there will be little to regulate.

Media owners should also stop whining. They should come to a realisation that they are operating businesses which have to be built on sound business models. Handouts don't build businesses, they kill them.

The writer is a journalist with The New Times.

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