RMC got it wrong on BBC

I have been reading a few comments purportedly made by the Chairman of the Rwanda Media Commission (RMC) on the recent suspension of BBC Great Lakes section. 

The Chairman of this organ, quoted both in local and regional media as well as on different social media platforms, questioned the legal competence of the public regulator (Rura) that took the decision to suspend BBC-Great Lakes.

To the best of his argument, he thinks the decision should have been taken by RMC, a newly created self-regulatory body. I don’t want to accuse the Chairman of playing to the gallery but what he should know is that the law is explicitly clear on who regulates audio-visual media in the country.

The 2013 media law is categorical on who regulates audio-visual and Internet media. Under article 4, paragraph two, the law states, “The national utilities and statutory regulator shall also carry out the regulation of audio, audio-visual media and Internet.”  You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand this provision.

The paragraph that follows says that there shall be a working agreement between the Self-regulatory body and Rura.

Indeed, this working document was developed and signed by the two parties. However, Article 5, subsection 1 of the MoU states, “Rura shall jointly work with RMC to handle audio, audio-visual and Internet media matters related to content.”

In other words, Rura does not relinquish its legal mandate to regulate broadcast media but simply expresses a willingness or good gesture to regularly engage with RMC on issues related to regulating audiovisual content.  This engagement is not mandatory.  It can either be done or not depending on the necessity as determined by the public regulator.

Therefore, it is wrong for RMC to claim that Rura, through the said MoU, extended the authority of regulating audiovisual media to RMC.

I am not a lawyer, but the little I know is that a law supersedes any other document. This is why Article 4, subsection 2 of the media law weighs more on this issue than whatever the MoU might be saying.

The decision to reserve statutory regulatory framework for audiovisual media was not by mistake. It is a common practice world-over. The standard practice is to have print media regulated under a peer-review mechanism and retain broadcast media under statutory regulation because of the complex nature of this segment of media.

The reason being that audiovisual regulation goes beyond mere regulation of ethical values of journalism. It includes the allocation of strategic broadcasting infrastructure such as frequencies, which are a scarce resource. 

Despite the emergence of new technologies that increase the number of channels available, broadcasting spectrum is a scarce resource and its demand continues to outstrip supply.

Indeed media watchdog Article 19 said, “States are required, under international law, to guarantee their citizens freedom of expression through any medium, the available spectrum must be rationed in a way which maximizes the ability of different voices in society to speak and be heard over radio and television.”

For this to happen, it can only be guaranteed under a statutory regulatory mechanism and not self-regulation system as some fellows have argued.

Again, because the function of regulation cannot be split between different organs, it is assumed that in addition to regulating broadcasting infrastructure, the public/statutory regulator puts in place a mechanism of checking the conduct of broadcast journalists through an agreeable code, thereby regulating audio-visual content too.

Yet it looks like RMC wants to take in more than it can chew. This self-regulatory body should start by building its own internal capacity and deal with regulating print media for a start.  Once it has put its feet on ground, then discussions can be made on where else to venture.

Finally, self-regulation is voluntary and not mandatory. Self-regulation does not cross borders. In fact, in the case of BBC, RMC has no legal competence to summon their reporter to answer them.  This is a foreign organisation with a working MoU with the Government of Rwanda. It is only a competent government organ that can deal with them. Legally speaking, RMC is, at best, a voluntary, self-regulatory body, which is not legally registered yet.

Therefore, much as we all support peer regulation, we shouldn’t mix up things.  The practice across the world is that audio-visual regulation remains in the hands a competent and independent public regulator.

The writer is a journalist.

arthur.asiimwe@gmail.com