Until a few years ago, if a journalist in Rwanda published a story deemed unfavorable to the regime, police or unidentified "security operatives" would arrive unannounced and drag the frightened journalist or editor away to jail. For publishing "offensive material" they’d be locked up for months without a court hearing. Considered a punishable offense was writing an article accusing the ruling party of governing autocratically. A number of journalists saw the inside of a prison cell after writing such articles. A few fled into exile and others decided self-censorship was the best way to go if they were to stay in business.
One John Mugabi of Rwanda Newsline, a Kigali-based weekly, published a story implicating a big army officer in the purchase of junk choppers for the military in a deal that would net him $600,000 in kickbacks. Mugabi was locked up on the day the story appeared.
Another journalistic offense, and not surprisingly in Rwanda a criminal one as well, is to write anything deemed hate speech. Amiel Nkuriza of the Kigali-based newspaper, Le Partisan, did that and served a three-year jail term without a court hearing. In his article, he questioned the "right of the Tutsi [ethnic group] to govern the country given they are the minority and so cannot possibly govern democratically." Nkuriza’s opinions echoed some of the ideas disseminated by the extremists who planned and instigated the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which many members of the Hutu ethnic groups participated in the mass murder of their Tutsi neighbors.
Though almost every media organization became a tool of these ideologues, the most notorious accomplices were Hassan Ngeze, publisher and editor of the Kangura newspaper, and Ferdinand Nahimana and Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, founders of RTLM Radio.No journalist — or anyone else — spoke up for him to argue that it was excessive of the state to lock him up for three years while denying him the chance to defend himself. Because many in Rwanda’s news media were willing accomplices in the dissemination of the ideology of mass murder [see author’s note], today the press is in the unenviable position of being trusted less by most people than the government.
The country’s new president, Paul Kagame, after conceding that the government has been on bad terms with the news media, has been inviting members of the media to his office for discussions on ways that the news media and government can make Rwanda a better society. After many excruciating years of open hostility, the realization seems to have sunk in that if Rwanda is to become a progressive, democratizing country characterized by rule of law, unbridled hostility to the media is not one of the ways to go.
This good news allows me to write a sentence that I could only have dreamed of writing just a couple of years ago: Today in Rwanda we enjoy press freedoms on a par with any Western democracy. This is not to say Rwanda has all of a sudden become a democracy. What we have is a progressive dictatorship with good intentions, but no safeguards exist to prevent it from returning us to the bad old days.
With the government no longer our main threat, we grapple with another major hindrance to our craft. Independent newspapers and privately owned TV and radio stations lack the economies of scale necessary to become sustainable businesses. The finances of running a private news organization in Rwanda are far different than in countries with longer established media that serve far bigger markets. Even before the mass murders and mayhem, the reality in Rwanda was that only government-owned media could operate with any regularity.
Slightly more than eight and a half million people live in Rwanda; 60 percent of them live below the poverty line (defined by the World Bank as surviving on less than one dollar a day). Radio is likely to be the medium most of the poor will have access to and only those who pay the price of a tiny transistor and batteries to power it. Even among the other 30 percent, a lot of those people are poor, though not destitute. They, too, depend on radio for entertainment and news. Only a tiny percentage of Rwandans own TV sets. A very few have the disposable income to buy newspapers and other publications regularly.
Given this environment, there is little advertisement money to be had. Yet for a good private press there exists a tiny, potentially profitable advertising base, if one manages to sign contracts with a few of the nongovernmental organizations working in Kigali. These include local UN agency offices, Western aid agencies, a few airlines operating in Rwanda, five-star hotels, and some quasigovernment agencies such as those handling its procurement needs and a few others. Mainly these are job announcements or tenders to supply services and goods. Even then, these advertisers show a bias towards working with government-owned media. And why not? If they want to get work out to as wide an audience as possible, the government press is the way to go.
The independent press has never earned money and so it can afford neither the staff, the infrastructure (computers, printing presses, phones), nor the capacity to publish newspapers or broadcast on a regular basis. Small independent media are trapped in a vicious poverty cycle.
The Courage to Try
It seemed crazy even to me when I decided to quit my job at UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) in Kigali to return to journalism. But I did this with the idea of starting an English-language publication called Focus that would target its reporting on holding politicians and policymakers accountable, including the lawyers, information technology specialists, medical doctors, civil servants, and teachers who comprise the professional and powerful elite. Some friends saw the need for this kind of paper and pledged money to finance three or four print runs.
I removed all my personal savings from the bank and borrowed money from friends. I bought some desktop computers, paid rent for the office space, a phone line and an Internet connection. I hired three reporters, an office manager, and an editor. Soon we were in business in our 30-by-30 foot downtown Kigali office building. We outsourced advertisement operations to a small group of freelancers. Like all good salespeople, they badger me with concerns about projected circulation growths, demographics, the reach of our distribution network, and so on. I tell them it does not take much market research to know that a number of Rwandans have the money to buy a newspaper but were long ago put off by the mediocre products the market offered them. If we regularly put out a good product — a well-researched, well-written, rigorously edited weekly — I sensed there was a strong chance a whole lot of new readers would surface.
In the five months that Focus has been in existence, we’ve fought in every way we know how to get readers. By May, progress was apparent. Our first issue sold 20 copies, but we took nearly a thousand unsold ones and distributed them for free as a promotion. The second issue fared better with 400 copies bought. Circulation jumped to 3,000 with the third and fourth issues. Two or three advertisement contracts have been signed, but we are not celebrating. Debts have accumulated to such an extent that Focus teeters on the brink of bankruptcy. But we hang on, knowing another jump in circulation will rescue us.
Starting a private paper here certainly requires a different kind of courage than was asked of us a few years ago in a country like Rwanda. Was courage what drove me to do this? Of that, I cannot be certain. But I do know I wouldn’t have lasted another month at my old job since I was ever more fed up with UN bureaucracy that made my work an ordeal. Whether courage led me to do this, I know now that courage is going to be necessary to keep us going. Some of that courage comes from knowing that my best contribution to a better Rwanda will only be made by being a journalist.
Shyaka Kanuma, a 2003 Nieman Fellow, is founder and editor of Focus, a new independent newspaper in Rwanda. In 2001 he was awarded the CNN/Freedom Forum’s Free Press Africa Award for his reporting with the Kigali weekly, Rwanda Newsline.