Explaining democracy and press freedom in the Rwanda context

Wednesday September 20 2017

They perceive the role of the media to be that

They perceive the role of the media to be that of contributing to development and maintaining a good name for the country, and not merely freedom of expression. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYANGAH 

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Last week, I argued that President Paul Kagame faces two main problems that will determine the sustainability of the development and democratic path he has helped put in place.

The two problems are how to stop external meddling in the country’s internal politics and how to institutionalise power-sharing as the political system that all political elites invest in.

The results of these challenges is that they produce two competing stories: The externally generated one that proposes there is no democracy or press freedom in the country and the internal narrative that these freedoms do exist.

Western narrative

The Western-driven narrative is informed by a libertarian view of press freedom and how democracy was applied in the country or how it should be applied.

Libertarianism is a school of thought that perceives all human beings as endowed with intellect. Promoters of this thinking believe there shouldn’t be any limit on the press since individuals have the capacity to discern good ideas from bad ones — with the former carrying the day.

That’s partly why, for example, organisations like Freedom House, which has persistently ranked Rwanda as “not free” last ranked the country better in 1993.

At the time the country was experiencing the worst hate propaganda with some media houses openly calling for the extermination of Tutsis.

To believers of unlimited free expression, what the Kagame-led government should have done after the genocide is to simply open up and let everyone speak without any limitations.

In practice, promoters of this view cite self-censorship, alleged repression of journalists, legal limits on freedom of expression as it pertains to ethnicity and promotion of an ideology to justify the poor ranking of the country.

But, talking to some leaders and listening to their speeches shows that they believe individuals need guidance and protection from divisive ideas.

They perceive the role of the media to be that of contributing to development and maintaining a good name for the country, and not merely freedom of expression.

The evidence these leaders give to show there is press freedom are structural and relate to the existence of many media houses, a number of journalism training schools, a progressive media law and access to information Bill, etc.

However, they fail to understand that media freedom is more than having many media outlets. It includes freedom to say things even those in power might not like.

On democracy, the Western narrative seems to be driven by a strong belief in adversarial politics and cut-throat competition between power contenders.

Since Rwanda is historically inhabited by three ethnic groups with Hutus constituting the majority, and since, it’s assumed citizens vote on the basis of ethnicity such that democracy came to mean ethnic majority and vice versa, Western observers don’t believe this logic can change.

In other words, Western observers treat politics as uncreative and static and therefore don’t believe in the power-sharing arrangement imagined after the genocide.

This narrative can be seen in questions some foreign journalists asked me during the presidential campaign. One journalist asked me: “I have heard that the Green Party candidate was allowed to stand as a facade to present the appearance of democracy. What do you have to say?”

What came to mind is how hard the Green Party candidate had worked hard to vie for presidency and how he had even sought my advice before announcing his candidature. I couldn’t understand what had informed the journalist’s question.

What’s clear is that promoters of the Western narrative don’t believe that political elites can share power or that popular political support can be forged through service delivery rather than on ethnicity.

Internal narrative

Meanwhile, defenders of the RPF-led government portray their politics as the ideal system. Yet, politics doesn’t work that way and consensual power-sharing is an experiment with flaws that need fixing.

What the two narratives fail to acknowledge is that the de-legitimisation of ethnic politics represents a fundamental shift and institutionalising politics of ideas oiled by power sharing will take time to take root.

Whether or not the two stories eventually coalesce and Rwanda becomes a fully-fledged democracy will depend less on what outsiders say but what we do internally.

Christopher Kayumba, PhD. Senior Lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, UR; Lead consultant, MGC Consult International Ltd. E-mail: [email protected]; twitter account: @Ckayumba Website:www.mgcconsult.com