In 1994, a genocide was carried out against Rwanda’s Tutsi community. Up to one million people were killed in about 100 days. During this time, some of the country’s media betrayed its citizens. Journalists explicitly called for Tutsis to be killed and exposed their hiding places.
The worst perpetrators of this “hate media” were the radio station “Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines” and the magazine “Kangura”. Both were sponsored or run by hard-line Hutu party officials.
Now, 25 years later, we found that Rwandan reporters are using journalism to promote peace, recover and reunite. With an array of media houses in existence in Rwanda today, these journalists come from both independent and government-run outlets and include radio, TV, newspapers and digital media.
We interviewed 24 journalists to understand whether they had played a role in the country’s recovery and redevelopment since the genocide. Only English-speaking journalists working in Rwanda’s largest cities were interviewed.
We found that while journalists aimed to fulfil traditional roles, like informing and educating the public, they valued their unique role: to promote unity and reconciliation. They wanted to prevent a similar tragedy from reoccurring.
Every interviewee, including those who work for independent outlets, said that it is a journalist’s duty to promote peace. They felt strongly obligated to this because they believe it’s in the society’s best interest.
The journalists fulfilled this role by regularly publishing pieces that focused on solutions and reporting on stories that foster hope, healing, and resilience.
As an editor at the government-run newspaper, Izuba Rirashe, explained:
You make sure that you don’t publish things that might separate people, that might endanger national cohesion.
They strongly believe that this style of reporting has contributed to the country’s post-genocide reconstruction and prioritise this role even when that means accepting restrictions and instructions from the ruling party.
Another editor at Izuba Rirashe justified this, saying that:
In Rwanda, we have a particular history that makes us sometimes do things other people don’t do.
A number of laws under the Rwandan government’s redevelopment plan restrict the way journalists and the public discuss the genocide and the subsequent reunification efforts. For example, Rwandans are not to be identified as members of ethnic groups, and strict laws were created to prevent discussions that divide people or promote genocide ideology.
Journalists report freely about corruption and other misdeeds – as long as those misdeeds don’t touch the president or his inner circle. Journalists are not allowed, by law, to criticise the president, and they self-censor when it comes to publishing anything critical of the country’s security or military.
These laws seem to run counter to press freedom, which is guaranteed in the nation’s constitution, but the majority of journalists we spoke with didn’t seem to mind. A journalist from Voice of Africa said that:
The government can control the media, but not in a negative way —- just in a positive way, to keep things going on and to keep the country in a good light.
Even when journalists are not legally restricted by the government, they tend to censor themselves. A producer for Radio/TV 10 explained why:
Because we are still in a fragile period — you know, it’s almost 22 years after the genocide…and people are still having fresh wounds in their hearts…even if we are having developments in Rwanda…people who committed genocide are still there; people who suffered are still there; widows, orphans are still there. They are still having a fresh memory. They are still having fresh wounds. It means that we have to be careful. Because of that, some people do self-censorship to themselves…Even if you can’t get penalised, you self-censor yourself, you say ‘no no no, this is untouchable, I’m not going to talk on this subject.
This journalistic duty to promote peace often supersedes traditional role functions. As a result, media coverage in Rwanda is less critical than in Western countries and the country is regarded as having little press freedom.
Reporters Without Borders ranked Rwanda 155 out of 180 countries on its 2019 World Press Freedom Index and Freedom House ranked Rwanda “not free” in its 2018 report.
But Rwandan journalists told us they believe outsiders do not understand their news media culture and should not judge them as oppressed. It’s a deliberate choice. Even though they were committed to a free press and exposing wrongdoing, they would prioritise the good of their society over their commitment to traditional journalistic roles – like informing and educating the public.