World Federation of
Science Journalists

Rwandan science journalists push economic development

May 5, 2011 posted in Sci.Journalism
The website of the Rwanda Association of Science Journalists has been revamped and upgraded in response to a recent burst of energy in reporting across the media spectrum.

Two examples – one from radio, the other from television – offer a glimpse into what science journalism looks like in Rwanda today.

During a March meeting of the government’s Media High Council and a number of journalism associations, including the RASJ, the word from the top was reporters should focus more on scientific news. The RASJ responded that they’ve been doing that since 2007 and even moreso recently. For example …

RASJ president Aimable Twahirwa says, “Radio stations play a leading role in local news and in disseminating information to a large audience in Rwanda … from now on, science for social change should become the motto of radio stations in the country.”

Someone is listening. At the privately owned radio station Isango Stars, newly appointed editor-in-chief Mike Karangwa covers science research in prime time. This kind of scheduling has been, at best, a rarity in Rwandan news coverage.

Karangwa says he does it because reporting science can help Rwandan citizens understand “health issues, environmental protection and innovations in agriculture research.”

A second example comes from TV. This medium is the little sister of radio in Africa, but a new Rwandan TV documentary company with a strong science emphasis has recently shown what can be done. The company, Media for Development, was founded by Jean Claude Niyibizi and Maurice Twahirwa, recent graduates of the school of journalism at the National University of Rwanda and members of RASJ.

colombite-tantalite (known as “coltan”) ores
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The company recently shot a documentary on contract with Rwanda’s Geology and Mines Authority about the mining of colombite-tantalite (known as “coltan”) ores. Recently aired on Rwandan television, it explains the science of this and other crucial ore bodies, and the trade convention called the “Certified Trading Chain,” or CTC.

CTC is a worldwide effort to make mining and mine processing transparent, so buyers can be assured the ore they get has not come from tainted sources. Rwanda is one of the pioneers in setting this transparency in place following a 2003 UN report which criticized Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda for enriching themselves in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo by illegally smuggling coltan from Congo and re-exporting it for refining abroad. There is a worldwide coltan boom, used in electronic, aerospace and metals-related industries, and specifically of late in cellphones.

According to Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, which led the way towards CTC, “mining in Central Africa has been associated with violent conflict, mistreatment of artisanal miners, illegal trading and the diversion of state funds.”

The threat of such violence and crime and the fact that the country has become a leading producer of coltan from its own mines – mining recently outstripped coffee and tea in exports – nudged Rwanda into setting up its own CTC regimen. It also sent Maurice Twahirwa, one of the eight founders of RASJ, into mines producing casiterite (a source of tin), coltan and wolframite (a source of tungsten, a mineral with military applications).

“A big part of these minerals are sold to Chinese importers who sell them in turn to cellphone and computer factories,” Maurice Twahirwa says (he is not related to RASJ president Aimable Twahirwa).

He has been interested in minerals since childhood, and has read many books on minerals and “pierres précieuses,” he says. (French is his second language after Kinyarwanda, with English as his third).

“Before I went into the field for my documentary, I visited different laboratories and consulted with mineralogists, so I was able to distinguish the coltan or tantalite mixed with the other minerals, casiterites and wolframites.

“I even learned which kinds of Rwandan soil had the potential to contain minerals, on a Rwandan map. So I knew about the process by which prospectors detect minerals, which has led to the discovery of about new 20 mine sites countrywide.”

Out on the shoot, he was determined that even though Rwandan news media normally “just talk about what the big boss feels about something,” he and Niyibizi “have focused also on the miners themselves,” a lesson he learned in journalism classes at the university.

So the documentary shows – along with the big technological and trade picture – up to 2,000 miners emerging black with dust at the end of a shift, with their safety helmets, boots and coveralls, carrying ore on their heads and shoulders. And their wives working as sorters, separating the ore from the sand and rock.

But for the big picture context, “I read all the documents about CTC and the traceability of minerals,” Twahirwa says, and went into the shoot knowing as much as he could about the worldwide efforts to stop illegal mineral profits from fueling conflicts in Central Africa. “Then I wrote the script and started with the filming.”

“In the field it was very easy for me because everyone welcomed me – the bosses, the miners, the population. The hard part was assisting the editor, choosing which picture would match the narration – all the stuff of filming.”

When eight Rwandan journalists decided to launch the association in 2007, some colleagues warned that a reporter needed a university science degree before taking on such stories. Clearly, Karangwa, Niyibizi and Maurice Twahirwa weren’t deterred.

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