But does the president have a middle name?

Carleton journalism professor Jeff Sallot first went to Rwanda during the genocide in 1994, as a reporter for The Globe and Mail.
He’s since returned twice to teach journalism night school and writes
here about the changes he’s witnessed and the journalists he helps

Journalism night school in Rwanda can be interesting when the power goes off. So keep your laptop batteries charged and your lecture notes on the hard drive. Yes, you can continue to have a class discussion about journalism while waiting for the lights to come back on. My students take it in stride.

I’m here in Rwanda for a second summer in a row, through Carleton University’s Rwanda Initiative project, to teach journalism at the Great Lakes Media Centre, part of the National University of Rwanda. I’m teaching mature students who have been working in media for some time but have never had any formal training.

Rwanda Class
(Carleton journalism professor Jeff Sallot and his students in Rwanda.)

The Rwandan government wants them to upgrade skills, and to study ethics and learn professional standards. As a Canadian journalist I’m naturally a bit wary when government says it wants to get involved in raising journalism standards. Will censorship be next?

But the Rwandan government has real concerns with irresponsible media.The local media, print but primarily radio broadcast, played a major role in the genocide of 1994. Irresponsible journalists became hatemongers. And when the slaughters began radio stations became part of the process, broadcasting tactical messages to the extremist militias as to where to set up roadblocks and who was on the list of people to be killed.

My course is heavy on the journalism ethics and getting my students to understand the difference between opinion writing and straight news reporting. The line is often blurred here in Rwanda. We are dissecting a piece right now about corrupt government officials who awarded a road paving contract to a convicted fraud artist. It was not a bad piece of investigative reporting, but it was marred by speculation and gratuitous digs at the officials. “The facts said all that needed to be said. You don’t need to be snarky,” I tell my students. Save that for the editorial page.

Journalism doesn’t pay well here. (Where does it?) So some reporters have taken to blackmail to supplement incomes. In a current case a journalist was convicted of soliciting a bribe to kill a story about a philandering male prosecutor having an affair with a prominent woman doctor. The cops set up a sting and caught the journalist red-handed. The paper then went ahead and ran the story, publishing the names of the doctor and the prosecutor. So now there is also a libel suit.

We’ve spent a fair amount of time in class discussing when it is appropriate to report private details of the lives of public officials.
I did a little experiment with the class, asking them what they, as Rwandans, know about the personal life of U.S. President Barack Obama. They all knew his middle name, his wife’s name, the fact he has two daughters.

Then I asked about Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Nobody is sure if he has a middle name, who his wife is or how many children they have. I think it was a bit of an eye-opener for my class. It’s not that the public needs to know all these things. But I wanted to show that a leading politician can be depicted in media as a real human being and not just some austere or remote figure.

We’ll see if any of my students takes up the challenge to write personality profiles of Mr. Kagame and the other candidates in the presidential elections due next year.

My students are an interesting group. It is tough for them to drag themselves out to three-hour night classes every night of the week after a long day at their job. They have family obligations and other concerns. I admire their persistence,  their stamina and their dedication to learning. My Rwandan co-teacher, Eugene Kwibuka, also holds down a day job but still manages to animate our nocturnal discussions and keep us on track.

I first came to Rwanda during the genocide of 1994 as a reporter for The Globe and Mail. It was a hellish place. I was happily surprised when I came back last year to see enormous change. This year I can see even more economic and social progress. Construction is booming. New stores and restaurants open every week, it seems. Journalists are prepared to condemn  members of the fraternity who commit blackmail. And the lights don’t go out so much.

Jeff Sallot teaches journalism at Carleton University.