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Kigali, Rwanda-As I write this note I am having serious threats on my life. This is due to constant intimidation from security, a series of kidnap attempts and illegal confiscation of my cellphone. My professional and personal life is hanging in balance. When I make self-assessment, as a journalist, I say without hesitation that I regret nothing.
I have lived for what I believed in. I spoke my mind, I lived, I learnt, I experienced. After all, what is life for! Life to me means standing up for something.
My current problems stem from the way I have conducted my journalism.
In my work, I have tried to practice my trade as a means of educating the Rwandan public about events and issues and how they affect their lives. I spent much of my time interviewing expert sources, searching public records and other sources for information, and sometimes visiting the scenes of newsworthy occurrences inside and outside Rwanda. After thoroughly researching the subject, I used what I uncovered to write as accurate reports as humanly possible.
My opinion was heard over the radio waves and in international media publications. The question would be why does a journalist hold a strong opinion on national issues? My answer has been the same, what do you do as an independent journalist in a country where civil space is limited, freedom of speech is moderated, political space is occupied by political entrepreneurs, and state narrative is imposed on people using mediocre media heavily finance by the government?
First, you need to understand how the politics of Rwanda’s media work. For instance, for you to survive or anything to thrive, you literally have to be ‘in bed’ with the system or you are not. There is no such thing as neutrality.
Your existence entirely depends on how you work with the system. For adverts to come in, later on any sort of revenue, you have to be in good books with the system.
It means that even your content (or byline) is determined and approved by the system simply you’re “with them” then you will hear them brag, “uriya n’uwacu” meaning that guy is ours. You will not question anything. Even if it means a politician asking you to discredit their rival, you will do so without asking a single question. That’s how some publications here publish a list of the “enemies of the state”
Certainly, the ones who decide to go that way are doing very well financially, driving good cars and taking their children to good schools and leisure parks over the weekend. But what is even more worrying is that it is not safe even for those who decide to ‘be in bed’ with the system.
There is a lot of in-fighting even amongst them. They are constantly bickering for favours, today you are in good books, tomorrow someone makes up a story to discredit you and before you know it, the system discards you like used toilet paper. That’s how the politics of the house works here. Many journalists publically can’t say it, but that is how the game is played.
The same game also goes on in private sector, that’s how many businessmen die just for being framed by their fellow businessmen. The competition is so merciless that even short term consultancies or access to places depend on how you relate with the system. So to speak, the system has taken over journalism and everything.
The key word is simple, you are either “with them” or “you are on your own”. Some of the journalists, who chose to be on their own, are trying to freelance for different media houses or start part-time consultancy firms. This has however come with very frustrating consequences. They are living an impoverished life, albeit with pride.
When you are an independent journalist in Rwanda, you are ignored by everyone. The (monetary) taps are closed; you do not get any deals or temporary consultancies. You are more of a prodigal son; you either sell your soul or die in poverty.
Frustrations are visible in the eyes of the independent journalists. You try to do what is right and stand for the ethics and principles of journalism but you find yourself going to bed hungry, despite several potential award-winning stories you have under your name. On the other hand, your colleagues and age-mates who decided to take a different route cruise in expensive cars–yet both are considered journalists.
Most of the journalism here is determined by the cheque, there is no journalism left but propaganda or something of that sort… Whatever it is, it is not journalism.
The policy in my mind had been to criticize but avoid bias, speak out but don’t condemn, try to balance but even when things gets hot, chill and remain in the country to be able do the job. Little did I imagine what was waiting ahead, as far as journalism is concerned.
My policy attracted more vigorous criticism, a lot of conspiracy theories out there against me…some published dangerous rumors in the books about Rwanda, I am sent by the state to pretend and stage as a critic, for government to be able get to the exact enemies, they say. Some, went as far as suggesting that, maybe I am targeting, a lucrative financial or a job by the state as a result of staging kind like opposition.
Some of the ‘good people’ refrained from helping me in times of need basing on those baseless assumptions.
Oh Man, others said, I am a spy, “How can he say all those things and yet not get killed, forced to exile or be in prison?” Others went ahead to suggest that I was a double “agent”. Some said I was staged by the state to create the impression that there’s freedom of speech in Rwanda and government was tolerant to criticism.
Some, could just say, “That guy is just seeking the attention. Don’t take him serious.” I remember one friend who for sometimes hoped she knew me and my intentions, told me after listening to the show I was invited in to give my perspective which wasn’t actually that controversial, then she was like-“Oh my God, you just did wonderful, you are probably the only one who can talk here,” then she continued, “You are too good to be true.”
See, some embassies here also buy those rumours innocently without any verification.
I don’t know about you, but it’s a difficult situation to be in a position where nobody trusts you completely, they question your motive and you have to explain yourself to friends to avoid them walking away from you.
But this trust problem isn’t about journalists only, trust among Rwandans has been eroded by reports of citizens spying on each other within their society on behalf of the government. They’re not official state agents, they are bogus informers maybe call them intelligence peddlers. These bogus informers have caused havoc in the society, thus the lack of trust.
During my journalism career, I have seen the best and worst times. Fellow journalists fled the country, imprisoned, and were forced out of business by various means. The best of times were when fellow journalists and I educated the public by providing alternative views to the dominant perspectives that come of government media and those others that push the official line.
Now, it appears I am the next journalist to face the consequences of independent reporting.
I have no regrets.
I stood tall –
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