14 April 2014

Rwanda: Access to Information - Public Agencies Faulted for Not Assigning Contact Persons

Only 28 per cent of public institutions have so far designated officials in charge of releasing public information despite Access to Information Law (AIL) obliging public institutions to do so.

Jean Aimé Kajangana, the director of a unit in charge of monitoring compatibility and interdiction of senior officers at the Office of the Ombudsman, who is also monitoring the implementation of AIL, confirmed this yesterday.

The flaw was first disclosed by officials at the Office of the Ombudsman during a media dialogue in Kigali last week.

According to Article 8 of AIL, a public organ should appoint or designate an information officer for that organ and its branch, if any, to enable it to provide information to persons requesting for it in accordance with the law.

But a year after the law came into force, only 39 of the 138 public institutions in the country have designated the information officers and notified the Office of the Ombudsman as the law requires.

"It's not about appointing new staff to work as information officers; it doesn't require a new structure. This is about designating someone at the institutions, preferably a senior official, to be the contact person for access to information within the institution," Kajangana said.

Lack of contact persons for public information requests leaves many, especially journalists, without a clear channel through which to officially send their requests for information.

Since March, last year, when AIL was enacted, efforts to set the stage for the smooth implementation of the law have been underway; five presidential and ministerial orders by the Cabinet were passed five months ago.

AIL requires public institutions as well as private entities bound by the law to provide within a maximum of two days information being sought by a journalist and three days in case of an ordinary citizen (from the date of submission of request).

"It's important to appoint contact persons for releasing public information because sometimes not everyone at the public institutions is available to respond to requests," Kajangana told The New Times.

The official said agencies in local government have been the most compliant in appointing information officers.

But in the central government, only eight ministries out of 23 have indicated their information officers, leaving at least 15 ministries without anyone the public can officially contact for information.

Challenge with private entities

Kajangana said part of the current challenges to enforcing AIL is the mindset of executives of private companies who see the government's intervention compelling them to release information as meddling into their private business.

The official said it is also challenging for the Office of the Ombudsman to define which private agencies are subject to AIL even if it was specified that it is those whose activities are connected with general public interest.

"Private organs whose activities are connected with public interest include those with production and commercialisation of food, drinks or other related activities. However, we need to define the size of the organ and the effects of consumption of those products," Kajangana said.

Lack of clarity to define the private organs AIL applies to makes it difficult to convince them of their responsibility.

"Sometimes we need some information and documents from private institutions but when we make a request, they think we are violating their privacy," he said.

Public cheated on access rights

The Office of the Ombudsman argues that although Article 7 of Access to Information Law compels every public and private organ to which the law applies to proactively disclose the vital information to the public, the latter continues to suffer from reluctance to disclose information on the part of both private and public organs.

"In most of public and private institutions this (disclosure of information) is not done and citizens still fail to access information needed in their daily activities or business," Kajangana said.

Rwanda Governance Board chief executive Anastase Shyaka said continuous discussions are needed in all the institutions to ensure that the public's right to information is better served.

"Now that we have been with a legal framework for a year, we need to reflect on whether the practice tells if the legal framework is proper. There is need for a better mechanism for coordination," he says.

Prof. Shyaka encourages journalists and public information officers to keep discussing openly to ensure that the best of the intentions in establishing AIL and other media laws is achieved.

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