From zero to a television news story in four weeks

After covering the tenth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, CBC video journalist Sasa Petricic went back with a very different mission. Laxmi Parthasarathy spoke with him in Rwanda about teaching TV journalism to working journalists in “the land of a thousand hills.” After covering the tenth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, CBC video…

Sasa PetricicAfter covering the tenth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, CBC video journalist Sasa Petricic went back with a very different mission. Laxmi Parthasarathy spoke with him in Rwanda about teaching TV journalism to working journalists in “the land of a thousand hills.”

Laxmi After covering the tenth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, CBC video journalist Sasa Petricic went back with a very different mission. Laxmi Parthasarathy sat down with Petricic in Rwanda to ask him about teaching TV journalism to working journalists in “the land of a thousand hills.”

As a video journalist for CBC’s The National, Sasa Petricic has traveled the world reporting on de-mining in Mozambique and mudslides in Guatemala. He first went to Rwanda in 2004 to cover the tenth anniversary of the genocide. He explains his visit as an assignment like any other, “I went to Rwanda because that’s where the genocide had been and that’s where we needed to do something.” But it wasn’t a beat that took him to Rwanda for his third time in five years. Allan Thompson, founder of the Rwanda Initiative, approached Petricic about returning to the land of a thousand hills as a teacher, which he’s now done twice. While in Rwanda this past summer as an intern with the Initiative, Carleton University student Laxmi Parthasarathy sat down with Petricic to discuss his work in Rwanda.

Q: What brings you to Rwanda?

Sasa PetricicSP: I’m here to teach television journalism and production. This time I’m here to teach a group of 24 working journalists, a handful of them television journalists, none of them reporters. Some work on television production and cameras and the others are split between radio and print. They are working journalists and like most working in Rwanda they do not have a lot of formal training in the field they work in or in journalism in general, so they’ve never really sat down to discuss the finer points of sources, ethics, pretty much all those sorts of things we get in journalism school, until now, when they get thrown into it.

Q: You are teaching at the Great Lakes Media Centre in Kigali. What does the centre provide?

SP: They offer night courses and additional training for Rwanda’s journalists. They are here in Kigali as a main arm of the national University of Rwanda, which is in Butare [approximately three hours away from Kigali]. Its role is to run undergraduate journalism programs for a degree, just as we have at any number of Canadian universities. This is kind of the night school or continuing education arm of that same university program and it’s based in Kigali because most of the country’s journalists are based here. It’s meant to round them out because most of these people have focused on one medium and this program introduces them to other media.

Q: I understand that you have been to Rwanda and taught here before?

SP: My very first visit to Rwanda had nothing to do with teaching, except perhaps teaching myself about Rwanda. I was here five years ago for the tenth anniversary of the genocide. I was sent here to report on it. I came with Canadian Dr. James Orbinski and he was, in some ways, my historical tour guide to what happened here. He had been here during the genocide as the head of  Médecins Sans Frontières operation and I was assigned to do a story on the tenth anniversary so I asked him to come back here with me and went through all of these places.

Shortly after that Allan Thompson started pestering me to come and teach and to be part of the Rwanda Initiative, partly because I had already been to Rwanda. I knew about the place. I knew about the country. I had some background in terms of training and journalism. He was trying to find people to teach television journalism, which is a particularly complicated thing to do because you have to teach journalism, the differences between print journalism and other forms, television, and there’s also a huge technical element which has to be taught. Allan knew because of the work that I do at The National, that I do all of these things.

Q: What was the reaction of your students when you entered the room as their teacher?

SP: One of the things that was interesting or great about it was that they had no clue who I was. They had no clue, really, what the CBC was. They were, in a sense, judging me based on what I was teaching them or based on what they felt I could convey to them. I showed them various stories and documentaries, some mine, some from other CBC people and some from other networks. They got a sense of the kind of work that I do. But for them, Peter Mansbridge could have walked into the room and they wouldn’t have known who he was.

That being said, I think that they were excited about the fact that they get an amazing parade of Canadian journalists who appear before them to teach and go through stories with them. In some ways they get an education from a collection of veteran Canadian journalists that most Canadian journalists would envy. I think the students here realize that they are lucky to have that. They really respect the fact that they have these “muzungus,”  these white people, who are naturally respected here whether they deserve it or not, just because of their presence. I think that is what gives you respect in the classroom as well as what you know and can teach, not because of some reputation that you may have.

Q: What brought you back to teach a second time?

SP: The experience I had last year. Last year I was teaching at the main university in Butare. I was teaching the undergrad program and I had a group of 22 students in their early 20s, mostly in their second year of their journalism degree. They knew nothing about television, they were pretty good at journalism but didn’t know anything about television and I had them for four weeks. We went from zero to having completed their first television news stories. It was really interesting: you went from walking into a classroom where everyone gave you blank looks and everything was a mystery to them —understanding the camera we were going to use, to any concept related to television journalism or visual story telling — to  four weeks later having produced their very first TV news story.

I would say a number of them, more then half, have stayed in touch with me since then, through Facebook or e-mail, and every few months I will get questions from them about journalism or television or something like that. And all of them have wanted to know if am I going to come back. It was incredibly rewarding because they were motivated, they were interested, they had a thirst for knowledge and developed an appreciation for television and the feeling that it was what the future was going to be for them, for their generation.

There is only one TV station. It is state owned and state run and the equipment is extremely basic. But I think last year there was this feeling that things were going to change and there would eventually be two, three, five, seven, 10 television stations the way there are in some other African capitals already. They wanted to be a part of that.

Q: What did you enjoy most about teaching these students?

SP: I think it’s their enthusiasm, their thirst for knowledge, their practicality. You may be sitting  there discussing the finer points of visual communication and writing for television and journalism research, but their eyes really light up when you are teaching them something that they consider to be practical, that they can use immediately, such as using a camera, editing, how to actually create things or capture images.

There is an enthusiasm for learning, a willingness to learn, even though it’s not immediately evident. Most of the students in my classes didn’t show up until 15 minutes, or half an hour after class has started. It wasn’t because they didn’t want to learn it was just the way things worked and people would drift in and out of class answering mobile phones and text messages and talking to friends. It didn’t really bother me after I realized that it had very little impact on what they were learning. Because those same students were doing really well on their assignments and understanding things. After a while you just realize that’s just the way it is, so you put up with it.

Q: Do you find any stark differences in the reporting that is produced here in Rwanda in comparison to Canadian standards?

SP: Yes, absolutely. I think that for all of the efforts of all of the journalists who have been through here, journalism still has a long way to go before it reaches the level of what we are used to when we open a newspaper, or listen to radio stations or watch television news. This is partly a function of skill. The country has a system of training journalists for a very short period of time.

It is also a function of how media is perceived in this country both by the government and the upper levels of society, business leaders and, I think, by the general population itself. In Rwanda, I don’t think that a free functioning media is seriously considered as a necessary part of democracy. In Rwanda’s democracy, it is about voting, about electing people, it’s about perhaps having opposition parties; but the media just doesn’t fit into that kind of a side things. It’s perhaps a necessary evil and a nuisance at the other end.

I don’t think that most Rwandans take the media that seriously.  Part of that is that they really haven’t had quality media for any great period of time and part of it stems from their experience with media during the genocide, when it was perceived as having actually fueled the genocide. Much of it did, and most people look at that and say that’s what a free media does, when in fact it’s exactly the opposite.

I think Rwanda’s media structure is in a very early stage. Newspapers are still very weak opposition voices. I think the newspapers that are the strongest in the country tend to support the government and make no excuses about that, and they don’t see their role as opposing. The same goes for radio in most cases. Free television, independent television is non existent. You could argue about media concentration and the closing of newspapers in the US or media in danger of closing in Canada but that doesn’t even begin to compare to the issues that Rwandan media has to deal with.

Q: What is the one thing you want to leave your students with?

SP: On the journalism side of things I’d like to leave them with the idea that they should be out there asking questions, that it’s good to ask questions and that that is what their role is, that they not only have a right to ask questions but a duty to ask questions and that they should be expecting answers.

I think journalists in this country are really no different than  the rest of the population. They feel that somehow it is wrong to ask questions, that it is disrespectful, that it is not their position to know some of these things or even to question their leaders. It’s counterproductive as far as journalism is concerned. It doesn’t lead anywhere because you have stories that simply glorify what everybody up to the lowest official is doing and that don’t really get to the root of some of the issues that need to be addressed in this country. There are exceptions but, by and large, that’s the main problem.

So when I talk to the students that I teach beyond teaching them television production and how to use cameras and the technology, I try to get across what we take for granted in North America — that journalists should be asking questions and should question authority figures and should look for problems that exist in society and try to dig to find out why those problems exist and what can perhaps be done to fix them. There is no tradition of that in Rwanda and that has got to change.

(Photo by Antonio Aragon.)