16 February 2013

Rwanda: Will Information Bill Change Rwanda's Media Environment?

It's four years since the Access to Information Bill was introduced and thoroughly discussed among relevant stakeholders, but the question remains; will the bill change Rwanda's media landscape.

The bill that was passed in December last year alongside other related media bills like the media law and the Media High Council (MHC) law, will guarantee access to data held by the state.

Presently it's very challenging for a journalist to access public information held by the government organs due to unnecessary protocol needed to get the information.

The Bill was drafted by MHC in consultations with stakeholders between 2009 and 2010 before being adopted by the government.

Notable among its objectives is; to promote open government through maximum disclosure of information and facilitate the right of all persons to have access to information held by public authorities.

It also requires public authorities to proactively publish and disseminate information to the public in a useful form and manner to further the public interest generally in democracy and development processes and to promote greater accountability of public authorities and private bodies.

Speaking to Sunday Times, Augustin Habimana, Parliament's Director General of Communications, said parliament passed the bill into law last year.

"It was forwarded to the Prime Minister's office and it will soon be promulgated in the official gazette," he noted.

According to the bill, the media will be able to do investigative and analytical journalism with more official and credible sources of information.

Robert Mugabe, the Managing Editor of Great Lakes voice, an online publication said the law will be very important if government authorities adopt the policy of official openness, transparency and accountability as required by the bill.

"The tendency of government officials to refuse public information to journalists by saying 'we don't have a comment, we are busy, please first write a formal letter asking for the information', will come to an end once Access to Information Bill comes into force," he observed.

Mugabe who is also the Vice President of the Press House, said that public officials who have been refusing to release information to journalists will face tough penalties once the law is in place.

According to Dr. Christopher Kayumba, a Senior Lecturer at the National University of Rwanda, Department of Journalism, the bill clarifies what would happen to officials after denying journalists access to public information.

"I think the bill will be helpful and it's a good development. I have attended many workshops with journalists; I have worked as a journalist, overall, many journalists say that it's not easy to access information held by public officials," he said.

Kayumba observed that what is most accessed is information given out during news conferences and one that is not of that nature is not easily accessed.

He challenged Journalists to improve their activism and defend their rights by taking action on public officials who deny them information they want.

However, the Minister of Local Government, James Musoni said that, the bill was initiated by the government and there is no way it will not be implemented once it's in place.

"Government believes in the content contained in the bill and the public institutions are ready to comply with it as stipulated by the law because our governance system promotes transparency and accountability, "he emphasised.

Article 6 of the bill explains what 'public interest' means and what qualifies information to be of public interest and how public and private institutions shall disclose information to journalists.

Emmanuel Mugisha, the Acting Executive Secretary of the Media High Council, said that, having the law in place is to foster the need of the flow information as article 34 guarantees people the right to opinion, information despite being journalists or not.

"It will act as a legal basis for journalists to claim information they have been denied and it will be a landmark to media in Rwanda," he said.

Mugisha stated that MHC in partnership with relevant stakeholders was planning to carry out awareness campaigns to enable public institutions understand the law.

According to Article 19, a London-based human rights organisation that focuses on the defence and promotion of freedom of expression, access to information is not the right of the media only, but a right for all the citizens.

Over 90 countries around the world have implemented some form of freedom of information legislation with only six in Africa. Rwanda will be the seventh.

"The bill is not heavy and penalties are light. I believe it will not even be implemented by the public officials," said Theodore Ntarindwa, the President of the Forum for Private Newspapers.

He noted that government officials should know that public information is for the citizen's interest not something that is only in the interest of the media.

Article 79 of the law clearly states that any public official who refuses to give journalists information will be taken to court and be fined anything between Rwf100,000 and Rwf300,000

The decision to establish an Access to Information law in Rwanda was first taken at the 6th Leadership Retreat at Kivu Serena in February 2009 and subsequently the MHC took the lead to develop the draft that was forwarded to government in 2010 and adopted by Cabinet on June 1, 2011.

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