In international journalism, a local journalist hired by foreign reporters for his or her special knowledge of the local area, culture, and language is called a fixer. This series explores the untold stories behind their largely unrecognized work. You can read about fixing in China here, Mexico here, Belarus here, and Afghanistan here.
While the Rwandan constitution recognizes freedom of the press, independent groups have described an encroaching atmosphere of fear leading to “widespread self-censorship” among local media and closures among offices of the foreign press. This situation is playing out against the backdrop of Rwanda’s well-known past: in 1994, an estimated 800,000 people were slain in the 100-day period of the Rwandan genocide.
Jean Pierre Sagahutu survived the genocide and in its aftermath, began working with foreign journalists who flooded the country. In his 20 years as a fixer, Jean Pierre has worked with media organizations such as CNN, ABC, BBC, Reuters, and France 24. Additionally, while fixing for the 2010 documentary Earth Made of Glass, director Deborah Scranton took such an interest in his story that he became a central character in the film, which won a Peabody Award in 2012. He spoke to Roads & Kingdoms about the media landscape of post-genocide Rwanda.
Roads & Kingdoms: How did you start working as a fixer?
Jean Pierre Sagahutu: In 1996, two years after the genocide against the Tutsi people in Rwanda, I started. I am a survivor of the genocide. By profession, I’m an accountant, but by that time, there were no jobs for accountants, so I decided as I was waiting to get a proper job to work as a taxi driver. There was a war in DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo] and many journalists came into the Congo via Rwanda. Someone who was working for BBC asked if I’m a taxi driver and I said yes. He asked me to take him to Goma, which is in Congo. Goma and Rwanda, it’s about 100 meters between the borders. So I took him to Congo and as we were driving we talked, and he asked me questions and I just answered like a normal guy.
I spent four days with him in Congo and he was asking me to do things for him, sometimes asking me to make appointments, hiring me as his driver and sometimes I was translating from Swahili to French. So I spent four or five days with this guy and he told me, “Do you know something called ‘fixing’?” and I said, “No, what is fixing?” and he explained what it is and said “You can do it!” I said, “But I don’t have the experience,” and he said, “It’s not that complicated.”
When I was done with him, someone else came and he had been given my name. The second guy, he gave my name to someone who was working for Reuters. So this is how I became the fixer.
R&K: You work in Rwanda, the DRC, and Uganda. What are some of the challenges in these areas?
Sagahutu: In the DRC, you can get whatever you want if you pay. It’s very corrupt. Very, very corrupt. We used to say that the end of the logic is the beginning of the Congo. In DRC, people are very talkative but you never know who [to trust]. So when you’re working in DRC you have to be very, very careful.
In Rwanda, you know if you are going to the right people. Rwanda is not like Congo. The problem in Rwanda is, for everything, you need authorization. But once you have authorization, you can cover whatever you want to cover. But you can’t do it without authorization.
R&K: Are there problems with how Rwanda is covered by the international press?
Sagahutu: You can’t come to Rwanda without talking about genocide. As you know, 22 years ago, genocide happened in this country and one million people died. In Rwanda now, 64 percent of MP’s are women. In Rwanda, there are no plastic bags. There are many things in Rwanda to talk about, but the big challenge is, even if you are working on a different topic, there is no way to escape the genocide.
R&K: Do foreign reporters have misconceptions about Rwanda today?
Sagahutu: There was a guy from France 24 who was trying to do a report on reconciliation. In Rwanda, we now say we are all Rwandan. Before, there were two ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi, and the genocide was against the Tutsi. Now Rwanda is very peaceful, but now saying Hutu and Tutsi has become taboo.
This guy came here and he was trying to make a documentary on reconciliation and was trying to get me to find him a story about Hutu and Tutsi working together. There was a soccer competition, and all of them were working for one team as Hutu and Tutsi, but the guy was late so we missed the story. He told me, you have to find me another story where Hutu and Tutsis are together; for example, a wedding where a Hutu is marrying a Tutsi.
As I told you, it’s taboo [to discuss such situations] because the idea is that we are all Rwandan. So I struggled to find a wedding where someone was a Hutu and the other was a Tutsi. I traveled to a church and saw someone I knew very well; I knew she was a Hutu, and don’t ask me by which miracle, but the [fiancé] was a Tutsi.
Most of the time when I’m working as a fixer, it’s about making something happen. I know how, for example, to meet a minister using the driver or his friends or something like that. A journalist can come here and say, “This is my schedule and do this and this and this and you only have two days,” and as a fixer, you make it happen.
The biggest part of my family were killed during the Rwandan genocide
R&K: Can you tell us about your involvement in the film Earth Made of Glass?
Sagahutu: I worked as a fixer on this documentary. The main character of the documentary was supposed to be [Rwandan] President [Paul] Kagame, and the lady who made the movie was trying to get someone, just a normal person, to put in parallel with President Kagame. So I was helping to find this guy. I’m from Kibuye, which is in the southwest of Rwanda and it’s a very beautiful place. So one time the team asked me where to go and I told them let’s go to Kibuye.
The biggest part of my family were killed during the Rwandan genocide against Tutsis. So we were there and I asked them, since we are here, if it would be possible to give me some time to pass by the house of my family because the house was still there. So we stopped to say hello and the check on my family’s house [now occupied by someone else]. They asked if I could introduce them to my family, and I didn’t like to talk about it, but they kept asking questions and I eventually told them what happened. And while I was talking they were shooting. They came to Rwanda many times and they became [my] friends. By the end, they told me they found the guy they were looking for, and when I asked who it was, they said, “It’s you.” I said, “I don’t know…”
But by the end, I became the main character of the documentary. After the documentary, I went to New York and in the same evening I met my president, Matt Damon, and Channing Tatum. I met many people there. And all of this, because of the fixing. Because of my job I’ve been in New York twice, I’ve been in London, France, Belgium, Tokyo, Geneva.
R&K: How do you feel about your work now?
Sagahutu: Working as a fixer is not easy, but it’s very exciting because I meet people from all over the world. That’s the good thing. But sometimes it’s really, really, really difficult. In the end, it’s like fighting: when you find what you are fighting for, it’s like winning a war.