The end of government media regulation?

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By Rena Ali

Last week, the Rwandan cabinet made the surprise announcement that it was pulling out of regulating the nation’s media. This was a completely unexpected turn of events considering the significant regulatory role it has played up until this time. Independent journalists have been subject to intense scrutiny, harassment, and in some cases, prosecution by the government for things that they have written and published. Even as recently as February of this year, two journalists received long prison sentences after being found guilty of crimes of ethnic discrimination, genocide ideology, defamation and inciting civil disobedience, with these convictions based solely on their published work. Needless to say, this announcement was met with much skepticism from members of the independent media.

So what has caused this abrupt change of direction from the government? There is much speculation, as many try to discern the true motives for this announcement. Is it the result of pressure from donor governments or Commonwealth members, who have become increasingly troubled by the authoritarian government? Is the move meant to quiet the voices of organizations like Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders, who publish frequent reports criticizing the Kagame regime’s heavy handedness in dealing with the media? Or could it actually be a genuine move of goodwill on behalf of the government, and a demonstration of trust toward media practitioners in Rwanda?

One troubling aspect of this announcement is the sense of urgency for the media to prepare for this transfer to self regulation. When interviewed, Information Minister Protais Musoni repeatedly urged the media to “stop wasting time” and “organize quickly.” As this decision, though long requested, was completely unexpected, members of the media are not immediately prepared to organize this new regulatory body. A skeptic could not help but wonder if this is an attempt to set the media up for failure. What will happen if the government’s deadline is not met by the media? Could this be used as an excuse to pull the plug on the whole transfer, with the government retaining complete control by claiming that the media was given an opportunity but did not prove capable?

And what of the fractures between members of the media themselves? Will these journalists whose views scan the entire political spectrum, from complete support of the government to complete opposition to it, be willing and able to work together? Will they be able to reach consensus as to regulations? And will they be able to trust that others in the industry are not secretly working against them to bring further harm?

This announcement, if genuine, is indeed good news for the media in Rwanda. As Nelson Mandela stated, “A critical, independent, and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy.” It is imperative that members of the Rwandan media come together quickly and work to establish this regulatory body for themselves. Ideological differences must be put aside, to create a vibrant, professional, self-regulated media. When the deadline arrives, the media should not give the government any excuse to withdraw its promise.

Rena Ali is an independent commentator based in the United States.

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