Hubris of The Economist: How this British newspaper ignores Rwanda’s context in its neocolonial desire to define that country
THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda | According to The Economist, a United Kingdom-based highly opinionated newsmagazine, President Paul Kagame runs a tight autocratic political system in Rwanda. The Economist arrives at this conclusion entirely based on its reporter’s personal feelings spiced by anecdotal stories told him/her by some fringe of that country’s citizenry. It is always good to be rich and powerful because then you can comment on other people’s lives with the confidence of a priest.
Let us subject the claims of The Economist to some scientific method in order to avoid relying on our biases and prejudices to draw conclusions. How should we scientifically i.e. in a neutral or impartial way, establish whether Rwandans are oppressed or free? One way to do this is to establish an abstract universal standard of freedom. This standard would have boxes to tick. If any country’s experience does not tick most of the boxes, such a country is not free.
Another way to establish whether a country is free or not is to ask its citizens how they feel about their situation: do they feel free or oppressed? This can be done through a scientific survey with a representative sample. If both methods produce the same answer, then there is no conceptual problem. But when the subjective feelings of the concerned people are at variance with the abstract universal standard, then we have a conceptual problem. The question in such circumstances is: whom would we listen to the most?
This is the dilemma those who comment on Rwanda politics face. In many indexes by Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders, The Economist and other international organisations that rely on these abstract standards of freedom, Rwanda scores poorly. But whenever there are opinion surveys to gauge the feelings of Rwandans about their sense of freedom, the answers are always totally different.
For example, in 2015, IPSOS, a French International polling firm did a survey on political perceptions in Rwanda. In that survey, 76% of Rwandans said they are free to write and publish anything, 82% said their country is a full democracy. On specific questions like: Are you free to say what you think? A whole 91% said yes. To join a political organisation you feel close to: 92%. To vote for whom you want to: 96%. Talk about the problems affecting your country: 90%. Hold a public meeting: 87%.
Gallup Poll, the world’s largest and most credible polling agency has done similar surveys in Rwanda. In 2013, Gallup’s Global Press Freedom Survey ranked Rwanda 4th in press freedom in Africa, behind Senegal, Ghana and Niger, 30th in the world. Gallup found 78% of Rwandans saying there is press freedom while 18 per cent said there is no press freedom in Rwanda. Therefore, it is true as The Economist claims, that some Rwandans feel they cannot use the media to express their views freely. But why choose to focus on the 18% and ignore the 78%?
In their analysis, Gallup indicated that, “public opinion about press freedom serves as a useful barometer of residents’ perception of the media in their countries, while evaluations from Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders provide expert appraisals of media environments. Gallup added this because of the consistent variance in their poll findings and the “expert appraisals.” The question is: whom should we listen to about whether Rwandans are free or oppressed, the experts or the citizens?