The Legatum Institute launched a new-case study 'Let There Be Speech: Reforming the Media in Rwanda
' examining the media reforms made by that country’s leaders from 2010 onwards.
Anne Applebaum, Director of the Transitions Forum, moderated the panel discussion that included Christian Caryl, Steve McCauley and Jerzy Wójcik, who took part in a fact-finding trip to the country and wrote the study.
Rwanda's recent decision to ban the BBC from transmitting inside the country has re-opened the debate of the boundaries of free speech in the country. In 2010, Rwanda had undertaken to transform its journalistic climate with a "media reform" project that resulted in the passage of new laws, the abolition of official state censorship and the creation of a right to information. The reforms have been welcomed by some, treated with scepticism by others. Questions remain: Can a regime with an authoritarian reputation and instincts learn to accept media freedom, both within the public and the state administration? Can outside assistance help the Rwandans think through this transition?
Christian Caryl explained that the Rwandan government’s tight control over the media could not be seen in isolation of the historical context. the 1994 genocide, during which Hutu extremists launched “an information warfare campaign” aimed at manipulating the masses to kill Tutsis, looms large over the collective memory. Recently however, Rwandan leaders realised that their plans for an economy driven by information exchange were at odds with state censorship.
Steve McCauley then outlined how the new laws regulating the media came into existence. By 2010, when relations between the government and the media were at an all-time low, the Rwandan leadership decided to imagine a new media landscape for the future. McCauley described how an independent group of outside advisers helped the process along the way so that by 2013 half a dozen media laws, regulations and new institutions came into being. Now that fresh legal foundations are in place and that change is being felt on the ground, Rwanda needs to think about other necessary reforms to ensure a free and professional media service.
Panellists addressed the importance of good journalism ethics. Rwanda has not enjoyed a strong tradition of independent, professional journalism and Rwanda needs more journalism training and institutions to build this profession. Most Rwandan media lack funding and cannot survive without state subsidies.
Moreover, as Anne Applebaum pointed out, also stated that one of the fundamental issues was the constant mistrust between the government and journalists. While journalists have to provide objective information in compliance with the rule of law, the government has to respect journalism as a profession.
The recent reforms are just the beginning and the media landscape is far from perfect. Yet, considering the weight of history, the panellists agreed that journalism might not develop in the same way as it did in the West and that the country had started an impressive reform process.
Let There Be Speech: Reforming the Media in Rwanda is the product of a unique international team put together by the Legatum Institute, who visited Rwanda in July 2014 to meet with senior officials, journalists, local civil society groups, international observers and other key players. The research team included Steve McCauley, who has been involved in the media reform process from the beginning; Anne Applebaum, a journalist and the Director of the Transitions Forum at the Legatum Institute; Jerzy Wójcik, a Polish journalist who made the transition from illegal to legal media in the 1990s and now serves as the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza; and Catherine Gicheru, an award-winning Kenyan investigative journalist and editor. The author, Christian Caryl, a Senior Fellow of the Legatum Institute, is the Editor of Democracy Lab at Foreign Policy magazine.
The Transitions Forum examines the challenges and opportunities of radical political and economic change.