What is the role of the press?
I was recently on my usual show on Kiss FM when the subject of the media in Rwanda was discussed. The host posed me a question. Can the press in Rwanda hold government in check? There is this notion that in the absence of other institutions the press can hold a government in check, to check the excesses, to expose their wrong doings. This frame of thought pits the Government vs the Press, the press is an irritant the government has to tolerate in the name of democracy, to prove its democratic credentials and allow occasional humiliation to appear humble. What is the press for? Is it to hold the government to account? Is it to check the excesses of power? There are institutions in place to hold government in check, the judiciary, Civil Society, Development partners, and public opinion can do this adequately. It is dangerous to think the Press is there to hold government to account, the press exists to inform the public on matters that are relevant to their lives, in so doing you can occasionally praise leaders or criticize them, but the overall objective should be to inform. If a policeman thought it is his duty to expose criminals, then they will fall to excesses of their own prejudices. A policeman who believes it is their job to uphold the law will more likely succeed. A free press cannot compensate for weaknesses in governance, it is only when those in governance have a solution that they can articulate clearly that Free Press becomes a reality. Our problems with the freedom of press stems from the inability of our officials to provide adequate solutions, not out of cruelty, they have no answers so they shut press down.
The Sentry Bird
What is the point of the press? I will illustrate this with an example in nature. In large herds on the plains, with Zebra, Antelope of all kinds, Warthogs, and all can rely on the best security system in nature. The Sentry bird posts on a high perch and looks out for them, when a leopard or lions come to ambush the herd, their main problem is avoiding the alarm of the sentry bird, it rings loud when it spots a predator and the hunt is over. Now that the animals know there is a lion, leopard, hyenas or cheetahs on the prowl, there is no chance of catching them, the leopard exposes itself and walks off. In return the sentry bird gets to pick and eat ticks, fleas, lice and other irritants of the grazing animals, it forms a dual purpose of exposing big threats and elimination of smaller threats. For the herd it is a win-win, it gets an alarm system, and grooming to remove disease-causing parasites. The sentry bird does this by earning trust, it never raises a false alarm, it is always alert, it is always clear about differentiating threats, but mostly, it is entirely in line with the herd and follows them. There is also another bird on the plains called the Honey-guide, it calls to people to show you where hives are hidden, sometimes deep in the stem of a tree. Young Maasai boys wake up to the call of the honey-guide, it takes you to a hive, in return it gets to eat the grubs and smoked out bees, but legend says that if you don’t share then next time to will lead you to a lion’s den. These are two illustrations of press in Rwanda, we follow the later pattern of the honey-guide and not the sentry bird, we chase instant rewards and not a sustainable model.
Last year there was a mini-famine in Eastern province, it was caused mostly by climate change, and though Eastern province has long suffered these problems, they are exacerbated by local government inaction. There were stories in the press making the rounds, stories of mass-migration to Uganda from Eastern, even the Govt paper admitted that some 50,000 people were on food aid, or was it 50,000 families? If you ran this story of the real severity you would be accused of “Gusebya Urwanda” maybe even locked up in jail until you retract it. If the president was an ordinary man who said there was visible hunger, he would have been arrested. The local mayor would go crying to senior people “look, they are attacking US, they are saying the WE as a government are useless, if I go down you go down!!” more tears then his sponsors swing into action to protect their political investment. The reporter is accused of lying to the public, retracts or is jailed, Rwanda’s image is saved while people starve. It is true that local leaders know that reputation matters a lot to government, to the point that they will cover up for them to make it look like everything is dandy. Then the president finds out about the severity of the problem and is livid, we were all afraid to say it but now we can all say what was blatantly obvious before. If only we had a sentry bird, to warn us of problems, the leopard creeps up to the herd and instead of heeding the warnings, the bird is silenced and the leopard eats us. We wait for the Ombudsman report to tell us what we all knew, long after resources have been wasted and when we can do nothing about it.