The International Reporting Project (IRP) and 12 senior editors and producers from across the United States traveled to Rwanda in an intensive program to learn about issues affecting Rwanda and other countries in Africa and to help them improve their news organizations’ international coverage.
The Gatekeepers met with a wide range of Rwandans and explored issues in health, economic development, environment, politics and regional security, reconciliation and justice, religion, education, agriculture, media and other areas.
At the close of the trip, the Gatekeepers met with President Paul Kagame for two hours to discuss media freedom in Rwanda, vague laws against divisionism and genocide ideology, the strings attached to foreign aid and development, the culpability of the Catholic Church in the 1994 genocide, the likelihood of another genocide and whether Kagame will change the constitution to run for a third presidential term.
Many Gatekeepers have produced stories and blog posts from the trips.
Nicholas Aster–founder and publisher of San Francisco’s TriplePundit.com–began the trip by outlining the topics he would most like to cover, including sustainable development in Kigali’s shining vision of the future, micro-enterprise, coffee’s empowerment potential and eco-tourism sites like Volcanoes National Park. Aster also became interested in Rwanda’s efforts to avert disaster by corralling Lake Kivu’s CO2 reserves into a power supply. At the close of his trip, Aster reflected on Rwanda’s sustainability goals in a photo essay.
Tamara Banks, host and producer of KBDI Colorado Public TV, also began the trip by outlining her top priority: Coloradans who are helping Rwandans rebuild their community. Once in Rwanda, she was struck by the condition of its roads–just one aspect of the ambitious plans President Paul Kagame later described for his country. After returning from Rwanda, Banks discussed the 1994 genocide on a Colorado radio talk show and asked why no one–including the United States–intervened.
Sharon Broussard, associate editor of Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer, visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre and learned that Rwandans still find body parts around the city and bring them to the center, 17 years later. There is room for more, said one guide. Despite Rwanda’s progress, it remains riven by vicious ethnic division; “Rwanda may be making great strides, but inequities and unresolved ethnic divisions — which Rwandans are not allowed to discuss — are holding it back,” Broussard wrote.
Peter Canellos, editorial page editor of The Boston Globe, used insights gleaned from the trip in an editorial that addressed Boston’s role in sending health care professionals to developing countries such as Rwanda. “Boston hospitals,” he wrote, “are part of the undertold story of how America is regaining prestige through the skills and humanity of its medical professionals.” He also commented on Rwanda’s quick growth and international “success story” status after the genocide, but cautioned, “Just don’t mention ethnic groups or criticize the government.”
Sue Horton, op-ed and Sunday Opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times, began chronicling her trip with a survey of Rwanda’s history on genocide, governance and gorillas before moving on to an examination of Rwanda’s longtime president, Paul Kagame. Horton’s first impressions of Rwanda reveal a country of contrasting realities. On the road to meet Rwanda’s famed gorillas, Horton noted Rwanda’s strengths and challenges: its ambitious vision for the future encourages a growth in infrastructure, but the city is relocating residents who don’t fit the image. Horton also visited Kigali’s Genocide Memorial and listened to chilling accounts from survivors of the 1994 genocide.
However, the news from Rwanda is not all bad: the country has showed impressive gains in health care provision and access, and laws–strictly enforced by fines and policemen who “shoot to kill”–make Kigali’s streets and markets remarkably safe. Perhaps that interest in justice is why Rwandans have closely followed the trial of Michael Jackson’s physician, Conrad Murray.
The deputy managing editor of GlobalPost, Andrew Meldrum, also picked up on the country’s complexity: “Rwanda is one of Africa’s most inspiring success stories,” he writes. “Or it is one of the continent’s most worrying countries.” There is much left unspoken in Rwanda that left Meldrum feeling uneasy. Even the Genocide Memorial in Kigali attests the country’s dichotomy; the beautiful, serene grounds serve as a cemetery for 250,000 victims of the genocide. Yet Meldrum found a new note of optimism in witnessing how far Rwanda has come since then, particularly after hearing the testimonies of the genocide’s youngest victims: children born of sexual violence during the genocide. Traveling north and south from Kigali, Meldrum glimpsed a Rwanda bustling with activity and making strides in health care and infrastructure–and even an unexpected form of eco-tourism.
Later, in a four-part series for the Global Post titled “Rwanda Now,” Meldrum went into even greater detail about President Paul Kagame’s impressive achievements but tainted reputation; the threat Kagame’s repressive policies pose to the media; Rwanda’s efforts to tame corruption and radically reform business; and community involvement in preserving endangered gorillas.
Tom Paulson, host and reporter for KPLU’s Humanosphere.org, explored the Seattle-Rwanda connection, particularly concerning public health. Paulson sensed a kind of scripted behavior among those he met, particularly among members of the media who must tread carefully. However, he discovered the positive side of aid and development in Rwanda, including girls’ education initiatives and coffee farming improvements. Moreover, Paulson documented the Gatekeepers’ trip to Volcanoes National Park–including a visit from a mountain gorilla who became a little too friendly.
Paulson has also posted several questions the Gatekeepers asked President Paul Kagame when they met with him, including his policies on restricting free speech, curbing population growth, and preventing another genocide. At the close of the trip, Paulson composed a photo slideshow that shows a growing, vibrant Rwanda, and he also outlined 10 reasons why the complex and sometimes contradictory country can’t be described in a sound-bite. He summed up his trip for KPLU, Seattle’s NPR affiliate, adopting the mantra of “You never can tell” toward the complex country.
John Rash, editorial page writer at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, announced a new initiative to cover international affairs–with a particular interest in the evolving role of the media–before departing for Rwanda. Once in the country, he witnessed a “triumphant recovery has been accompanied by increasing authoritarianism that could convulse the country in ethnic conflict again.” After returning from the trip, Rash applied lessons he had learned in Rwanda to an NGO’s efforts to relieve famine in other African countries.
To round out the trip, John Schidlovsky, director of the IRP, wrote about meeting
President of Rwanda Paul Kagame. Schidlovsky noted that Kagame has successfully spearheaded Rwanda’s impressive economic, social and health gains, but he has also attracted criticism for repressive policies against opposition politicians and journalists, several of whom have been imprisoned, died mysteriously or fled into exile.
Other Gatekeepers included Marc Charney, staff editor of The New York Times‘ Sunday Review; Rebecca Davis, senior producer at National Public Radio; Amy Hollyfield, government and politics editor of the St. Petersburg Times; and Mary Rose Madden, senior producer at Baltimore’s NPR affiliate, WYPR-FM.
Each year the IRP selects two groups of “Gatekeeper Editors” to travel to a country or region to learn more about critical global issues to help them improve their news organizations’ international coverage. The Rwanda trip was the 16th IRP Gatekeepers trip since 2000.
“This is the 7th country in Africa that we’ve taken editors to in the 12 years of our organizing these trips, which underscores IRP’s commitment to increasing US media coverage of Africa,” said John Schidlovsky, director of the Washington-based IRP.
Gatekeepers are any senior journalists ““ publishers, executive editors, managing editors, broadcast producers, online editors, editorial page editors, business editors, op-ed page editors and others ““ who determine editorial content at any type of media organization. Gatekeepers must have at least seven years of editorial experience and must supervise staff at a fulltime job at their organization. Gatekeepers must be U.S. citizens or else employed as staff editors in the U.S. for a U.S.-based news organization.
Previous IRP Gatekeeper editors have traveled to Indonesia (in 2000 and 2011), Liberia, China, Peru, Kenya, Turkey, Uganda, Korea, Nigeria, Egypt, India, Lebanon/Syria, South Africa and Brazil.
In addition to the Gatekeeper Editor Trips, the IRP offers individual Fellowships to U.S. reporters to travel overseas on five-week reporting trips. IRP Fellows have traveled to more than 100 countries, including three Fellows who traveled to Rwanda.
In 2001, Kimberlee Acquaro focused upon the role of marginalized groups in Rwanda’s reconstruction and reconciliation–particularly the Rwandan women who are determined to transform the nation after the genocide.
Michael Kavanagh also reported from Rwanda in 2004. Kavanagh turned his attention to “Rwanda’s latest ethnic cleansing”: the government’s repressive policies and its heavy-handed attempts to control genocide discourse. He looked in particular at those who have been marginalized after the genocide, including victims of sexual violence and Hutus who fled the country during the 1994 atrocities.
In 2009, Perry Beeman discovered a Rwanda similar to that which the Gatekeepers
encountered: a country that has made much progress, but still has many challenges ahead. Beeman created a multimedia series, Renewal in Rwanda, for The Des Moines Register; his reporting garnered him an Overseas Press Club citation for Best Reporting in 2010.
Rwandans, Beeman found, are dedication to conservation. President Kagame is committed to the environment and is driven to develop clean, sustainable power and to convert from subsistence agriculture to a stronger, more diversified economy. But everyone has a hand in this effort, including schoolchildren who report on conservation in song, dance and dramatic arts. Beeman also examined efforts to preserve the Gishwati Forest, including gorilla and chimpanzee preservation efforts from villagers to businessmen to researchers. Beeman emphasized the importance of immersing oneself in an environment in order to report on it, and he did so by, among other things, tracking wild chimpanzees in the forest.