Date: 22 Jan 2010
Speaker: Kamalesh Sharma, Commonwealth Secretary-General
Location: Kigali, Rwanda
Thank you for this kind invitation to address you today.
Yesterday I met His Excellency President Paul Kagame. This morning, I addressed representatives of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies. In both cases, I offered a heartfelt welcome from the Commonwealth to this country, its 54th and newest member.
Let me test my skills again: Murakaaze! Welcome!
I spoke of the journeying of Rwanda – and of all Commonwealth countries – towards the uplands of peace, democracy and prosperity. I spoke of the hills we climb, one by one, to reach the highest point. This, I hope, rang true for the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’.
I also said that democracy is: ‘... a state of mind, and a deep-set culture’; as applicable to government as to business as to civil society; as applicable to the three pillars of government (the legislature, the executive, the judiciary) as to the ‘fourth estate’ - the media.
The ‘fourth estate’ begins with the law is on its side. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 states that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
In the world of the media just as in wider society, the democracy of which I speak means freedom, but it means more. A wise man once said that ‘Responsibility is the price of freedom’.
The ‘Commonwealth of Values’ has responsibilities towards Rwanda, and the ‘Rwanda of Values’ has responsibilities towards the Commonwealth. The government and the media have responsibilities to each other, and both to the people of Rwanda.
These are my themes today: I see the Rwandan media as agents of transformative change in a country which has come far, and which has so much further to travel. That is freedom for the media and responsibility.
The Commonwealth is built around the twin pillars of democracy and development – to which we tend to add a third, diversity.
A responsible media has a role to play in fostering all three – and, as technology gives it ever more power and reach, its responsibility is all the greater.
First, Democracy. A democracy means many things, and one of those is a lively, free, and responsible press. A free media holds up a mirror to society, and is itself a reflection of a vibrant democracy. A media that can work freely in the dissemination of information will benefit everyone – from individuals to governments, to civil society and the business community – because it lifts social awareness and puts them in a better place to make informed and responsible decisions. The media should be the voice of the people, accommodating all its voices, ensuring that the more dominant voices do not drown out the lesser.
Many Commonwealth countries now have burgeoning media: state control is gone or going; and choice and energy are all. We welcome both state and private media, as long as both realise that the media space is a public trust, with newspapers and broadcasters the public trustees.
But just as democracy is a ‘work-in-progress’ in every Commonwealth country, so too is a free and responsible media, in this country as anywhere. I do not need to retrace old and painful footsteps over the role of the sections of the Rwandan media which fostered ethnic division and hatred in the darkest days of 1994. All I can do is to point to the solution, and indeed the way in which the Commonwealth can work with local media to foster responsible reporting.
The most recent example was the training we gave in Kenya in January 2008, in the wake of the bloodshed which followed the Presidential elections there.
Sections of the Kenyan media had a share of the culpability – and needed to see the value of balanced and non-inflammatory media reporting.
The Commonwealth assists the work towards establishing media freedom and responsibility as an ingredient of democracy in other ways, too. We work in almost every field, by lobbying, explaining, persuading, encouraging, building capacity, and pressing always for improvement.
The Commonwealth Journalists Association, Commonwealth Broadcasting Association, and the new Commonwealth Press Union Trust are involved in this work, as is the inter-governmental Commonwealth Secretariat.
We ensure that there is a strong media element to our election monitoring, in working for a level playing field in the way that political parties use the media, and vice-versa. Bias can be bad enough in itself – but when it is linked to money, it is even worse.
On top of that, we offer fellowships to young Commonwealth journalists coming to our London offices to work in our News Service, while our Commonwealth Media Development Fund – some 30 years old, and now being given new impetus – has trained over 6,000 journalists in the past decade. They are trained in the best practices of thorough, balanced, unbiased, responsible journalism.
We also work to strengthen the enforcement mechanisms that allow media to operate, especially the laws which promote freedom of access to information.
Second, let me touch on Development.
Development is linked to democracy: research makes it clear that there is an organic correlation between democracy – including a robust and free media – and economic growth. And it is democracy itself which underpins the huge potential of the media to help fight our development battles, against poverty and injustice.
In the developed world, the media can help fight poverty by educating and challenging people to right the wrongs and the sufferings of the developing world. In the developing world itself, however, media can transform lives – whether it’s raising awareness of HIV/AIDS, or maternal health, or climate change, or peace and reconciliation in conflict zones.
We encourage the media to hold governments to account on their development promises. We try and equip it to report objectively – as a service to the people of their country – on the realisation of the Millennium Development Goals, adopted by the global community at the United Nations.
We exhort journalists to report not just through generalisations and statistics, but through human testimony.
In previous years we ran a project in Southern Africa mobilising media partners to inform and advise on the fight against malaria. Further back still, we produced a set of films alongside the World Health Organisation about maternal and newborn health, which were aired over several months on international television.
That is the power of media to change lives for the better.
Ladies and Gentlemen, in closing I return to my theme of the mutuality of partnership and responsibility. The Commonwealth of 54 governments and their peoples is an extension of the Commonwealth of one government and its people – that of Rwanda, its newest member. It reaches out to all of you, in the face of our collective goals and needs.
When the mirror is held up to the Commonwealth, or simply to Rwanda, it is in fact held up to us all, and to entire societies. The media is at the heart of society, and your readers and viewers and listeners are at the heart of the debate.
We encourage you all in your crucial work – individually and collectively – to build a better Rwanda. And we ask you to be the communicators and commentators in a great communal enterprise, in Rwanda and in the wider Commonwealth. Your freedom has come at a price – and I urge you to use it responsibly in the service of the future you hold before yourselves.