Sunday, March 2, 2008



By David Gusongoirye

There are no truer circumstances than now to demonstrate the saying that whereas medical personnel bury their mistakes, journalists publicise theirs.
We might occasionally goof up here and there in our daily business, and a call from an embarrassed citizen, or a chastisement from a senior editor, will bring home the fact that a serious error has been published in the day’s edition. But that is absolutely nothing compared to the mother of all goofs that took place last week, in the name of awarding journalistic excellence in Rwanda, where the organisers nullified the awards as not reflecting a proper reflection of developing journalists.

There are so many embarrassing things to point out. One of them is that President Paul Kagame has just appealed to journalists “to stop shooting ourselves in the foot”, as one headline screamed in this very paper. And hardly a week later, lo and behold …!

Even as we journalists trade blame and throw mud at one another, no one will dispute the fact that the idea of recognising journalistic effort is noble, and the recent hiccup should not deter us, but merely be looked at as a teething process in the growing of the media industry in Rwanda.

I refuse to be drawn in the blame game, even as I agree entirely that this ruckus would not have developed, had the 2006 Golden Pen Awards been organised a little better. And this is how we get capital out of the mess.

Rwanda Journalists Association
There is a lot of goodwill to properly direct matters of journalists in this country. The media has been the subject of a major discussion at the recent Akagera Retreat, where all top government officials met to discuss affairs of state in a more pleasant environment than the usual dreary office and parliamentary chambers.
It took no less than the Head of State to affirm that the media is one of the important arms of government, and so should be accorded all the help it needs to perform its duties effectively.

This was a wake-up call for all journalists and media-related bodies to take notice. And indeed some took notice, but not the kind that should have taken the lead.
I am specifically calling attention to the Rwanda Journalists Association (ARJ).
If it is the duty of ARJ to develop good and ethical journalistic practices in this country, it should be active about it. The Golden Pen Awards offers a great opportunity to this august body to say look, this is how we appreciate good writers or other such contributors to the media, and ye young journalists should take note and emulate such examples of writing or presentation.

The ARJ is the official, and to all intents and purposes the only professional, media organisation that should organise such a function. It is assumed to have a fair representation from all over the country and from all the media houses; it is assumed to have a macro-outlook towards media affairs, this outlook completely untainted with other mundane considerations like financial gain or personal career development.

As it was, the ARJ hid behind the tails of a media relations firm, and because it is a passive organisation, it was totally eclipsed and just accepted to go along for the ride, which turned out to be a disastrous ride for all riders.

2007 Golden Pen Awards
Since we have established that ARJ definitely works for loftier journalism ideals than any other media institution, it should organise the 2007 journalism awards for excellence, and there is no better time than the present to start giving tips.

The call for presentation of articles that will be used as entries into the competition should be made with lots of time to spare to the deadline. A month’s notice is appropriate for entrants to leaf through their portfolios and present their best pieces for competition.

The process of receiving the entries should be highly formal, with a form to fill specifying the titles of submissions, date and time, and the person who has brought them. The officer who has received the entries should acknowledge receipt too. This will serve the purpose of countering claims regarding non-entry, late entry or other such claims regarding malicious intent to disqualify an entrant on such submission grounds.

The jury should be carefully selected. The ideal number would be five or seven. But they should be boosted by very clear guidelines about what the organisers want in a winner. Perhaps this should be the most precise of all forms, specifying what they should look for when picking winning articles, emphasising journalistic principles and writing skills. The guidelines should be so clear as to leave little doubt in the mind of the person using them to award marks.

The jury should be given one week to read and listen through all entries, as they are expected to be many. If a one-week deadline could generate 37 entries, then one can well imagine what a one-month deadline will do!

The Golden article
It is unimaginable for one to be declared best without evidence. So it is incumbent upon the jury to immediately avail the winning entries to the public, so that they can be admired, emulated, and given due praise. We all love a well-written story, and even if the public will not have got the benefit of all the other entries, the gems in the winning entries will shine through, and the winners will not be begrudged their brilliancy. Besides, this is the essence of building professionalism; the young journalists will aspire to write or present just like the winners.

The spats between the journalists who organised the 2006 Golden Pen Awards, those who presided over the awards, and the participants – winners and non-winners alike – would have been avoided had these benchmarks been followed.

Lastly, I would like to turn my attention to the sponsorship of the awards.

If ARJ organised the function, there is no way it could fail to get sponsors. Being a non-profit making organisation, it would maximise the use of the sponsorship offers, something which cannot be said of a firm that has thought out and implemented an idea whose paramount objective is how much profit they can get out of it, and promoting best journalism writing practices a distant second.

In the meantime, it is counter-productive to keep trading accusations in the face of a sniggering public. The sources of our stories keep wondering at our ineptitude, and ask such questions like: If they can mess up their own baby project like that, what will they do to ours, we who are not of their fraternity?
Let this year’s awards remain nullified as we look to the future for better organisation and discipline.

The author is an editor with The New Times publication.