To most people, the phrase “media regulation” conjures up the dull image of bureaucrats in a room, making rules. But in a country which has recently experienced a civil war, or in one which has recently emerged from a totalitarian or authoritarian regime, there is nothing more important than the regulations and institutions which govern speech, whether in spoken, written or broadcast form. The structure of state broadcasting, the laws on libel, blasphemy and hate speech and the economics of newspaper ownership can profoundly influence the public’s ability to debate everything from politics and economics to religion and recent history. In the wake of a major change, the media can help consolidate the public’s sense that a single party is in control. Alternatively, the media can give people the confidence to speak openly about contentious issues and help launch economic renewal and political reform.

The value of public debate has not always been recognized in transitional countries, even in those where the manipulation of the media has led to terrible tragedies in the past. Until recently, officials in Rwanda often argued that they could not run the risk of allowing a truly free press. As justification, they pointed to the role played by media, especially radio, in promoting the Rwandan genocide of 1994: “Look what happened when we had a free media.” Yet the media at that time was neither independent of government nor truly free. On the contrary, the Rwandan radio was used to promote hate and fear in the months before the genocide precisely because it was not independent. At that time, military officers and politicians from the Hutu majority government used radio to spread false and inflammatory information, claiming, for example, that Tutsi had hoarded weapons in a particular place or murdered administrative officials in particular province. If the media had been truly independent in Rwanda, it would not have been possible to orchestrate a systematic campaign of hatred with such ease. Competing voices could have cast doubt on the false claims, or offered alternative points of view. Genocide might have been avoided.

Recently the democratically elected government in Rwanda has said that it is keen to see the media play a newly invigorated role in the development of the country, helping people understand and debate the big issues facing the country. In Libya, business leaders and politicians have been quick to embrace the media and launch new TV and radio channels as part of a huge effort to involve the public in the transition from dictatorship to what most Libyans hope will be a democratic government under a new constitution.

But if the governments of two very different countries like Rwanda and Libya have reached the conclusion that media is this important, so too should other countries experiencing major transitions. Contrary to the assumptions of most who work on developmental and economic issues, in countries recovering from civil war or ethnic violence, or in countries transitioning from dictatorship, the creation of a secure and independent media is not a luxury: A legal and regulatory framework allows responsible media to flourish, debate to take place and is essential for both security and development. Yet when offering advice to transitional countries, outsiders rarely make media policy and regulation a priority. If they do provide help, it is usually in the form of journalism training. But unless journalists are truly free to write and speak – and unless they write and speak within a framework of rules accepted by all – then any money spent on training will be wasted. Without a minimally reliable system of transmitting information, money spent on election campaigns, political party formation and even post-conflict reconciliation will probably be wasted as well.

From June 2011 to September 2012 the Legatum Institute supported a series of visits by media experts to both Rwanda and Libya. During this period the authorities in both countries were actively thinking about media reform and had already launched initiatives to foster debate about it. Both were at very different stages of emerging from conflict: the Rwandan civil war and genocide ended in 1994, whereas Libya’s civil war ended in 2011. Both had very different and distinct histories and traditions but both faced some common challenges when it came to media. Their leaders had to balance their very real need for security and the prevention of violence with their stated desire to have a more open public debate. In both countries, most people want to avoid a reversion to civil war and ethnic conflict. At the same time, they need to be able to challenge one another’s views and to argue – constructively - about government policy and economic reform. In both countries, people also want access to neutral, unbiased and reliable information.

During these visits, Legatum experts met with government officials, journalists and editors in Rwanda and Libya to discuss the regulation of newspapers and internet media as well as the reform of public broadcasting. This paper analyses some of the issues which arose during our dialogue.

Free Speech, Free Press, Free Societies is part of the Legatum Institute's 'Transitions Forum', a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.