Where have Rwanda’s reporters gone?

by Lisa Weighton
Media involvement in the 1994 genocide left Rwanda with a skeleton of a press. Few teachers were left to train the next generation of reporters. The Rwanda Initiative is changing that.

by Lisa Weighton

Fourteen years ago, Rwanda was torn apart. Machete-wielding militiamen hacked the country limb from limb. They killed some victims swiftly; they deliberately left others to bleed to death.

Some victims are still dying. The militiamen spread HIV/AIDS to countless women, knowing the effects are catastrophic. The unparalleled violence that left the country on its knees is like a wound too fresh to forget … too painful to remember.

The media — radio in particular — played an active role in the killings.

In 1994, reporters from Radio Television Libre des Milles Collines read the names of those to be murdered in the genocide. They used hate radio to turn neighbours against each other and to tear families apart.

In an April 7, 1994 RTML broadcast, CNN reports an announcer saying, “You cockroaches must know you are made of flesh. We won’t let you kill. We will kill you.”

The broadcasters systematically helped brainwash, manipulate and calculate the slaughter of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. People were no longer human beings, but insects to be exterminated.

By the time it was all over, the media had been torn apart too.

Click here

to listen to a radio documentary by first-year Rwandan journalism student Prudent Nsengiyumva for Radio Salus in 2007.

Some reporters were murdered, some fled and others were implicated for their involvement in the genocide. Rwandans lost faith in the media, and the media lost journalists. Few professional teachers and experienced journalists were left to train the next generation of reporters.

All of this inspired Allan Thompson to create the Rwanda Initiative. It’s a partnership between the journalism schools at the National University of Rwanda and Carleton University that aims to strengthen the media sectors in both countries.

Thompson is an associate professor of the School of Journalism at Carleton. “Ultimately the objective (of the initiative) is to build the capacity of the media in Rwanda, but also to build the capacity of the media in Canada to understand a place such as Rwanda. So that’s where sending journalists over there to teach (comes in); they come back with a different mental view of Rwanda,” he said.

The story that went untold

It all started in 1996. Thompson came back from Rwanda after covering the refugee crisis for the Toronto Star, two years after the genocide.

He said he got to know the Rwanda story and “became obsessed by the fact that media didn’t seem to have covered (the story) properly the first time around.”

Thompson carried that with him until he started working at Carleton in 2003.

The following year, he organized a conference that looked at the role of the media in the Rwanda genocide.

Roméo Dallaire was the keynote speaker, and emphasized how Western media failed to adequately cover Rwanda in 1994.

“O.J. Simpson … was on the airwaves. Tanya Harding’s kneecapping of her colleague, her competitor in figure skating was sneaking in trying to take the airwaves. You had Nelson Mandela’s election. You had Yugoslavia, and oh yes somewhere in there, a bunch of black tribesmen in Africa are killing each other,” said Dallaire, according to the conference transcript.

Yearning to learn: Students hungry for knowledge

Several faculty members from the National University of Rwanda attended the genocide symposium, and proposed Carleton send teachers to lecture because they didn’t have enough teachers to deliver their curriculum.

Two years later, the Rwanda Initiative sent its first teachers to Rwanda.

“There’s a real kind of hunger among journalism students in particular for whatever they can learn from these visiting lecturers because … there just aren’t enough professional journalists to generate teachers,” said Thompson.

Soon after, the Initiative started a student exchange program where Carleton students could work as interns in Rwanda. “They come back quite engaged with Africa, and different reporters than they might have been,” he said. “They will do more articles about Africa; they will go there again; there will be outcomes,” said Thompson.

Camille Greer, now an associate producer for CBC Radio-Canada, was a student intern in June, 2007. Originally from St. Lucia, Greer said she always wanted to go to Africa.

“All of my ancestors in the Caribbean came from Africa at one point, so it was so interesting for me to see the connections between the culture that I know and the African culture.”

Greer said she didn’t need time to adjust to life in Rwanda. It just felt like home.

She hit the ground running with an educational documentary film she produced with another student. It focused on birth control in Rwanda, something she said few women there fully understood.

While Greer said the experience didn’t change her “that much at all,” her trip to the genocide memorial museum in Kigali certainly left its mark.

It’s built on a mass grave containing the remains of more than 250,000 people. The exhibits include a display case filled with rows of skulls. Some are from children. Some have deep gashes from the blades of machetes.

There’s also a display of victims’ clothing. Some is arranged in outfits, hanging empty, no bodies left to fill the clothes out.

“There was one T-shirt hanging there that had ‘Ottawa’ on it. That really struck me because some little kid was getting murdered while he was wearing a T-shirt that said ‘Ottawa’ on it, and the international community wasn’t doing anything,” Greer said.

She also learned about the role radio played in the genocide.

While Greer said the experience is “invaluable” for students, the Rwanda Initiative promotes more than just Canadians telling Rwandan stories. It also supports Rwandans telling their own.

Most recently, the initiative developed a training program at the Great Lakes Media Centre, a night school in Kigali for working journalists. The initiative also sends Rwandan journalists to Canada to work at media outlets here.

“Those young journalists become better and better journalists and can produce material that’s ready for broadcast or publication internationally,” said Thompson.

The Rwandan Minister of Information, Louise Mushikiwabo, is familiar with the Rwanda Initiative and said as long as non-Rwandan organizations understand the context of journalism in the country, they are “most welcome” there. “I think the Rwanda Initiative and many other initiatives that bring training and professionalism to Rwanda is obviously a very good thing.”

Shelly Robinson is the former project coordinator for the Rwanda Initiative. She spent more than a year in Butare doing just that. She worked with students to put together a current affairs radio program at the National University of Rwanda.

Robinson said the Rwanda Initiative is successful because of its hands-on focus.

“They’re teaching them the same way they would teach Canadian students, which is a huge focus on practical skills which there’s not enough of.”

She said if teachers aren’t working with students to produce work within their own environment, they won’t realize the challenges they face.

“If I hadn’t actually been producing that radio show with those kids, if I … said, ‘now here’s how you put together a good current affairs program,’ I wouldn’t have known they had hardly any recorders … that to do a streeter, it’s crazy hard because people are even more reticent to talk than they would be at home … that they didn’t have computers’ that we didn’t have places to record narration for our scripts.”

Robinson said Thompson’s commitment to working long-term is what makes the Rwanda Initiative so “amazing.” Thompson has relied on funding from the Canadian International Development Agency, the Canadian foreign service and private donations from former Toronto Star publisher John Honderich to launch the Rwanda Initiative and keep it running.

Radio Salus breaths new life into the airwaves

One of the project’s initiatives is to provide training at Radio Salus, a community radio station operating from the university campus.

Salus was born in 2005, after Rwanda’s airwaves had been silent for more than a decade. The university was the first in the country to be granted a broadcasting license after the ban on radio was lifted. However, getting on the air took longer than expected, and a number of other stations began popping up at the same time as Salus.

What separates Salus from the rest is it’s a community station — the first to start in the country — and it runs mostly on student labour. Salus also strives to meet “professional” standards and the Rwanda Initiative helped by sending media trainers to develop programming and basic training sessions.

Soon after it launched, the community-minded station with a national audience rose to be number one.

While Robinson said Rwanda’s media system still struggles to recover, the Rwanda Initiative allows students to make significant changes within it.

When Salus Director Aldo Havugimana asked her to develop a weekly current affairs radio program, she recruited three first-year students to work on the program with her.

“They had no journalism experience whatsoever, no radio experience and were thrown into producing this weekly program on top of all their other work,” she said.

The second week of the show fell on the first day of genocide memorial week.

“Two of the students produced five-minute documentaries … on an issue related to the genocide. That’s crazy,” she said. “First-year students, no journalism and in a week they’re both tackling the most serious issue in their country.”

Despite Rwanda’s restrictions on press freedoms, Robinson said, “in that show, we really felt like we weren’t touched by it.”

Rwanda is “small enough that a small ripple can make a huge wave,” she said.

Rooting in the shadows: Pushing ethics aside

for the sake of the project

But not everyone thinks the Rwanda Initiative is accomplishing everything it should.

Claude Adams is a documentary filmmaker and CBC freelancer. He supports the program for the most part, but discovered in his 2007 stint that Canadian teachers have to set aside conventional journalistic ethics and integrity in order to work within the restrictive Rwandan media environment.

“Within days of being in Rwanda, I got a pretty strong sense of what the situation was like on the ground,” he said. “This was a government that did not want to hear messages that went against the grain, that went against their policies.”

Adams attended a genocide anniversary ceremony while there, and later posted his observations in his personal blog.

“It’s shortly after 8 a.m., and the speeches don’t begin until 11, but the ‘common’ people are already here in great numbers, sitting on hard wooden benches in an enclosure. They will sit today with remarkable stoicism, under a cruel sun, for nearly six hours,” he wrote. In contrast, VIPs, the press and invited guests “… sit on comfortable chairs, bottled water in hand, shielded from the sun under huge pavilions.”

Adams was supposed to participate in a scheduled media training session at Rwanda TV, but several days after he posted his blog, a senior official of the station told him there were things about Rwanda “you clearly don’t understand.” She withdrew his invitation to attend.

“They were not interested in accommodating a western journalist who spent so much time rooting around in the ‘shadows’ of Rwandan life,” Adams wrote.

By working within the restrictive culture of press freedom, “you’re teaching (students) that compromise is OK in certain situations, and I think that’s a dangerous thing,” he said.

“To what degree should the fear of offending a host government prompt volunteers to soft-pedal professional and ethical standards in the course of their work?” Adams writes.

“I know professor Thompson argues it’s an either-or situation. You either do it the way they do it, or the government will throw you out. That’s a point of view, which I don’t happen to share.”

Adams suggests the program should get a little bit “edgier” and take a “stronger position” against the government and criticize its policies more openly without being disrespectful or overt.

Growing pains

Thompson said part of the problem is the media lack professional training, which results in errors and inaccuracies. “That builds the sense that the media aren’t reliable.”

“I think a way to address that is to help to foster the skills that will make the media more reliable and more credible, and then deserving of more freedom and more space,” he said.

And Thompson said one of the ways to do that is to keep the program in action and to bring more Rwandan journalists over to get experience in Canadian media.

“I would like to have more Rwandans…undergo training exercises or to study and have a chance to see another media context,” said Thompson.

This is something Adams sees as the most valuable part of the Rwanda Initiative.

“These journalists will hopefully go back and they’ll be changed and see that a different system is existing and maybe they’ll push a little harder to change things in their own country…but you have to build a reputation for professionalism and probity and they haven’t quite done that yet, and that’s what they’re trying to do with our help.”

So as Rwanda’s media sector continues making improvements, media freedoms will gradually increase, one journalist at a time.

Thompson said, “people who have been there have seen quite dramatic results with individual journalists with whom they have interacted.” But he said the learning curve has to happen both in Rwanda and at home.

“We didn’t learn very much” from how the media covered Rwanda more than 14 years ago, said Thompson. “We’re still making the same kinds of mistakes in Darfur … so I think if we can make some kind of difference in Rwanda after the fact, and raise levels of awareness among Canadian journalists and journalism students, it’s worth it.”

Related Links:

To learn more about the Rwanda Initiative visit: www.rwandainitiative.ca

Visit the Salus Radio homepage at: http://www.nur.ac.rw/spip.php?article135