Rwanda: Blogging From Inside Rwanda: A Conversation With Graham Holiday

Graham Holliday is an award winning blogger, a freelance media trainer and foreign correspondent. He blogs at Noodlepie and Kigali Wire, a news wire, photojournalism site and blog.

Q: Your blog, Kigali Wire is a popular news source on Rwanda; could you tell us how it all began? And something about yourself?

I started putting Kigali Wire together in June, 2009 when I knew I would be moving to Rwanda. The original aim was to aggregate interesting news from Rwanda, blog original content and distribute it using free tools.

The publishing and distribution model is largely based upon the work I did as the Digital Media Editor and Journalism Trainer for the Frontline Club in London.

I wanted to use free tools where possible. The only thing I paid for was the WordPress theme. Initially, I used WPNewspaper. I later moved to Graphpaperpress, as it soon became clear to me that I wanted to focus more on photography.

My hope was, and still is, that Kigali Wire will act as a model for others in how to publish and distribute a news wire online at very low cost.

In addition, I wanted to make how I built the site and the thinking behind it as transparent as possible. As a result, I documented the whole process of building the site on the Kigali Backwire and I occasionally add thoughts and ideas to the Kigali Wire Roughbook.

As for me, I started blogging nearly ten years ago. I lived in Vietnam for ten years and blogged mostly about the street food scene on my noodlepie blog

I've worked in blogs and online journalism ever since. I continue to blog for the Frontline Club, the BBC College of Journalism and Current Intelligence as well as Kigali Wire.

Q: You write that your blog is a “social media experiment”, what is the state of social media in Rwanda?

In Rwanda itself, it's very small-scale. Internet penetration is very low at about 3% of the population.

There are other limiting factors; many parts of Rwanda lack electricity, there are frequent power cuts, plus the Internet is very expensive, slow and unreliable.

The Rwandan government, a few expats and NGOs are probably the most active participants, certainly across blogs, Facebook and Twitter. I know some Rwandans in Rwanda on Twitter, but I could count the number on one hand. Facebook is more popular.

The diaspora and a number of overseas based commentators are far more active. Some of whom blog in Kinyarwanda.

Q: Rwanda has been emphatic on the role that the Internet can play in development, yet the country has on various occasions been criticized for hindering free press. What is the status of censorship in the country?

On paper, there is no censorship in Rwanda. However, it's clear self-censorship is a big problem within Rwandan media. There are virtually no critical voices in the Rwandan media, at least in the English language media.

However, the Kinyarwanda language media is quite a bit freer. Unfortunately, much of it is filled with rumour, gossip, made up quotes with little attention paid to ethics of journalism. Having said that, regardless of the poor quality of the Kinyarwanda language media it's hard to support the horrendous sentence passed down against the two Umurabyo journalists recently.

In addition, the six month ban of Umuseso and Umuvugizi in April last year was out of all proportion. Although, the ban was lifted in Septemeber 2010, the newspapers are yet to return to the streets of Kigali. Another tabloid, Umusingi, is also under threat of late.

Q: How does this affect the blogging community?

As far as I know, the blogging community, such that it is, consists mainly of expats blogging. Most of those appear to be transient, they'll often only be here for a year or so and then they're gone. So, there's little to no effect. Its rare to find bloggers within Rwanda blogging on these issues.

Q: Are there any other challenges that you experience while blogging or that Rwandan bloggers face in general?

Just the power cuts and slow Internet. Sometimes it's so slow, it actually stops altogether for a week or more.

Q: What would you consider to be the success of your blogging experience? For instance, some people have stated that your blog is the closest thing to free media that Rwanda has?

I measure the success of my blog in the number and quality of the connections I make with people inside and outside the country. I have met with some fascinating Rwandans, from bee keepers to orphans, politicians, diplomats and journalists. It also allows me to connect with foreigners interested in Rwanda.

A number of Rwandans have told me they find the wire invaluable. I think this is because I try to aggregate news in an intelligent manner, to weed out what's important on any given day. That could be a news story from the Government mouthpiece newspaper or a critical blog post or article in the mainstream media.

I try to refrain from adding too much of my own opinion. Facts and truth are elusive in Rwanda. An opinion I may hold today could quite easily change tomorrow.

I think an editorial layer is very important. I always check the source of a blog or news story I find interesting. Unfortunately, there are a number of blogs and Twitter accounts, with agendas out there. It doesn't take long to figure which ones they are and I tend to ignore them completely.

Also, there are quite a few very vocal commentators who publish strong opinions about Rwanda, but who seem to spend remarkably little time, or indeed no time at all, in Rwanda itself. I tend not to read or link to them either.

Regardless of your opinion of Rwanda, to form any kind of intelligent perspective you do have to spend a lot of time in the country, talking to Rwandans, finding out how things work, observing life.

Q: Overall, what is the status of the Rwandan blogosphere? Have more Rwandans started blogging?

Like I mentioned earlier, not that I have noticed. You'll find greater numbers of Rwandans congregating around Facebook, various email discussion lists and Igihe – I could be wrong on that, but that seems to be the case.

Q: Now you also use Twitter, how important is this medium to bloggers?

I have been on Twitter since it started in 2006. Twitter has evolved into an entirely new news platform, therefore it's obvious if you're interested in news you have to be on it.

It's a good distribution tool, but I mainly use it for monitoring and engaging with people.

I occasionally pick up stories I would not otherwise know about by running forward searches on keywords.

It has proved very useful as an early warning system during the grenade attacks we have suffered in Kigali over the past year. Not all of the information turns out to be true, but it's a good starting point, so long as you keep a skeptical eye on supposedly authentic information coming out of Twitter. Rumours spread just as fast as facts on Twitter.

On the evening of the last grenade attack at the end of January, 2011 I was having dinner with my family in central Kigali. We were unaware of the attack while we were out. When we got home, I looked at Twitter and saw a number of tweets mentioning a possible attack an hour earlier. However, there were very few details of where or when the attack was and if anyone had been injured.

I made some phone calls to a number of reliable sources and immediately tweeted the most important bits of information and tried to quash rumours. I then spent a bit more time talking to people, monitoring news outlets to put together a quick blog post summarizing what I had found out.

I suspect Twitter might become more and more important as and when the Internet becomes more affordable, reliable and widespread.

Q: Most other forms of media were used during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda to incite ethnic hatred? Do you think that blogging has the capacity to unite the society?

I'm afraid that's too big and idealistic a question for me… :) Come and ask me again when all Rwandans have access to a reliable electricity supply, know how to use computers, have access to computers and the Internet and can afford to use the Internet… Seems like a long way off to me, but here's hoping.

Q: What do you think will be the legacy of your blog?

I hope I will find a Rwandan who can take it over. If I can find the right person, Kigali Wire will be an ongoing news wire and resource that I just happened to start.

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