About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Kigali’s media freedom woes

How the discourse on press freedom in Rwanda has missed the promising developments in that country

Last week I attended President Paul Kagame’s lecture at Chatham House in London. It was without the usual hecklers i.e. mindless anti-Kagame fanatics. It attracted the more refined minds of British intellectual society. So the discussion was calm and reflective. Later in the week, I spoke at the universities of Oxford in England and Bremen in Germany – again before audiences of the sophisticated, thoughtful type. In all events, some people raised the issue of press freedom in Rwanda, saying that is Kagame’s worst score.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding of what is happening in Rwanda’s media. The human rights Taliban have distorted the discourse because they treat democracy as a religion. Religion does not need “pre-conditions” – you can plant the seed of Christianity or Islam in any society regardless of its level of development and it will germinate. But even here it takes generations for people to completely abandon their traditional superstitions.

Democracy, as a system of government, needs structural foundations; and it takes time to build regardless of the intentions of leaders. Governments can write high-sounding constitutions promising freedom and equality. However, if the structural conditions for it are missing, little will be realised in practice. That is why it took America 90 years from independence to freeing slaves. Yet the American constitution clearly stated: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are born equal…” This self-evidence certainly did not apply to poor white men, all blacks, women and other ethnic minorities – each of whom gained rights at different times.

America’s democratic institutions did not end slavery; they perpetuated it. Instead it took a civil war to end it. Even then, it lasted another 100 years from the 13th amendment (which guaranteed every adult male a franchise) for America to give its black people the right to vote. And this was because a large and educated black middleclass had grown as a result of industrialisation. Even then, the civil rights movement lasted 15 years of protests and boycotts accompanied by unprecedented police brutality and KKK terrorism.

Let’s return to Rwanda. The global human rights police have a habit of picking one unfortunate incident (like the arrest of a journalist) and present is as a daily pattern. They have been extremely successful partly because Kigali often plays into their hands. But how many journalists have been arrested in Rwanda over the last four years? Zero! Yet if you read Human Rights Watch reports and listen to Kagame critics, you would think it is 100.

Over the last 20 years, Rwanda’s Gross Domestic Product has grown at an average rate of 6.6% (and 7.7% since Kagame became president in 2000). This has led to the growth of nominal per capita incomes in Rwanda from $150 in 1994 to $700 ($1600 in purchasing power parity) in 2014. This income growth has largely been driven by deregulation, privatisation and liberalisation all of which have freed a significant share of the economy from the state. The growth of the private sector as a source of wealth and power has been accompanied by the emergence of an increasingly large, educated middle-class – a vital social infrastructure for democratic politics.

The above is accompanied the mass access to education opportunities. University enrolment in Rwanda has risen from under 1,500 in 1995 to over 80,000 today. There is free education up to the first 12 years of schooling; primary school enrolment in Rwanda is at 98% and over 60% of its youth studying in secondary schools. Mass education is moving hand in hand with rapid urbanisation – both of which form the software for democratic politics.

Finally, Rwanda is a small country of 26,338 km²that has so far laid 4,000km of Fibre Optic Cable – the highest density of any country in the developing world including China. Its vision is to have 95% of all Rwanda connected to the 4G LT (the highest speed internet) by 2017. With its one-laptop-per-child policy, the spread of smart phones (made possible by increased education and income), Rwanda is creating the most promising hardware and software for free publicity/expression in the developing world.

Consequently, most Rwandans do not read printed newspapers. Instead, they depend on the Internet for information and debate on public policy. Government deliberately encourages the use of social media and has thereby turned almost every adult citizen into a journalist and a publisher and broadcaster. This is the most rapid expansion of space for free expression in history. Therefore, even if it were true that Kagame jails journalists and shuts down newspapers, his methods would be archaic and self-defeating. He would be fighting freedom tactically while building it strategically; which would result in overall good.

It is possible that in all his aforementioned policies towards education, Internet and income growth, Kagame’s aim is not democracy but development. Granted! But that is beside the point. Freedom may not be his subjective motivation but it is likely to be the objective outcome. It is also possible that in spite of all these developments, democracy may fail to gain a foothold on the steep hills of Rwanda. But it is also true that without these developments in education, income and urbanisation in Rwanda, it is unlikely that the nation can build a genuinely democratic political dispensation.

A country like Singapore has all these but has not democratised to the same degree as Norway. However, there is a consensus among its elites in favour of its current political arrangement. Public satisfaction with the political system is higher in Singapore than France and UK. So Rwanda can follow suit. America has the infrastructure for democratic politics. But democracy has found it difficult to flourish in that multi-racial nation whose foundation was genocide of native peoples and the enslavement of its black population. Because of these early distortions, America has remained an oligarchy of corporations – the ruling classes relying ever more on propaganda to keep the illusion of democracy especially to the less observant.

There are many un-freedoms in Rwanda. Some are products of its social structure. Some are unnecessary actions by the state (and this is where the debate should be). However, given its history, many un-freedoms in Rwanda are necessary for ensuring social order – itself the first pre-condition of democracy. Freedom without order is license. The seed of democracy does not germinate on the sands of anarchy. Just look at Libya, Iraq and Mali! In England and Germany last week, the audiences appreciated these arguments.


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