Media development in Rwanda

This piece appeared in my Sunday column with The Sunday Times newspaper. I have decided to share it with my readers here as well.

Our media requires a new bottom-up approach
By Allan Brian Ssenyonga
By the time of writing this column, the much awaited National Dialogue on Media Development was taking place at the Kigali Serena Hotel. The conference got me thinking of so many things I almost failed to make up my mind on what to write.

The question of the media in Rwanda is one on which almost everyone carries a different view. The recent report by Reporters Without Borders even had the audacity to rank Rwanda below Somalia as far as media freedom is concerned. There is a lot of good ill for the industry from the different stakeholders.

Rwanda’s remarkable growth cannot continue or even be sustained without a vibrant and successful media industry. Anyone in doubt can just look back to the events that preceded the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis where the media became instrumental in steering the destruction of this country.

Rwanda’s stories have to be told by its media and to do this well, the media here has to develop in a multidimensional way. Although I was not one of the panellists or speakers at the conference I still have something to say about the media situation in this country and I am going to take advantage of this space here.

First of all it was interesting to see that the dialogue took on an East African hue thanks to the presence of Robert Kabushenga the CEO of Uganda’s Vision Group, Reginald Mengi the owner of Tanzania’s IPP Media and Dr. Githinji Gitahi, MD of Nation Media Group’s Daily Monitor newspaper assign of Rwanda’s belief and commitment to the wider East African Community.

I believe the three men were invited to give an insight into how they have seen the media in their respective countries and media houses growing to enviable levels. However at the same time, their presence may have served to obscure the fact that Rwanda’s media industry needs to look in on the inside to address its challenges.

This conference was a national dialogue and would have done better with Rwandans or media practitioners here discussing the way forward instead of envying and looking at neighbours whose environments are quite different from Rwanda’s. If I was the organiser of the conference, these three gentlemen would have been observers not panellists who in my view took on more than deserved attention.

Many speakers at the conference were calling on the foreign investors to come and invest in the media here. What about the local investors, where are they? Are they not worthy investors? It is good that Mr. Kabushenga and Mr. Mengi all called on Rwandans to spearhead the development of the media and not sit back and wait for foreign investors.

Local players in the media industry have to raise their game and prove to the foreigners that it is profitable to invest in the industry. There is no way, Nation or The Guardian can start newspapers here without seeing The New Times basking in profits or growing.

You will agree with me that the media in any country is a huge reflection of that particular society’s understanding of issues, thirst for information and level of tolerance among others.

My recommendation therefore is that media in Rwanda needs a bottom-up approach. Community radios and community focused coverage would go a long way in developing the industry. Many Rwandans can read Kinyarwanda but the Kinyarwanda papers only focus on stories about government officials and soldiers that are barely well researched.

We are now asking foreigners to invest here before we even think of developing a culture of enthusiastic consumption of media products. Have we thought about the reading culture? What about the fact that local businesses hardly advertise? How can media houses thrive when local business entities are not that keen on using the media to advertise? Just pick up a regional paper and see the difference when it comes to advertising space.

The industry has to take time to study the local population and see what they want or ought to consume and work hard to present it in a professional manner. In Tanzania, Mengi’s empire has tapped into the abundance of Kiswahili literacy to produce so many newspapers in the language. Ask Kabushenga about how Bukedde newspaper, Bukedde TV and radio have brought smiles to the Vision Group shareholders.

In Uganda the most profitable radio stations are the ones that broadcast in Luganda and play only local music. Then you wonder why the stations here are so obsessed with playing Ugandan music and endless talk shows about the English Premier League.

Let us look around ourselves for answers and once we find them, regional investors will come flocking. The development cannot trickle from up but it should bubble from below. The conference is nevertheless a step in the right direction.

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About Allan Ssenyonga

I am a Ugandan freelance writer/journalist based in Kigali, Rwanda. I have an insatiable desire for understanding and trying to explain media, political, cultural and social dynamics.
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