Journalists, are considered the voice of the voiceless and therefore if denied access to information, this role is automatically jeopardized. Without information, the journalists are left to speculate leading to production of stories based on rumours, which in turn have compromised the credibility of the profession in Rwanda.
Comparing Rwanda’s journalism with that of the region, Gasperd Safari, the president of the Association of Rwandan Journalists says that the standards of professionalism in the country are way too low.
For the past few years Journalists have complained that they are denied access to key events and functions such as Presidential press conferences. Therefore handicapping their operations.
In last week’s presidential press conference, a reporter with Rugali Newspaper, told the president that it is unfair if journalists are denied access to press conferences organised by his office.
However, Yolande Makolo, the President’s Press Secretary had an explanation.
“We invite the press depending on the kind of event and the space available,” Makolo said. “For this particular event (President’s meeting with the press) there is very little space so we gave priority to the papers that come out every day, to the radios and to the television”
Access to information is a fundamental right of journalists. The Rwandan constitution provides for this right and even goes ahead to state that freedom of the press and expression is guaranteed by the state, Articles 65 and 66 of the media law state that when a journalist has a press card, he must be facilitated to access Information.
However, despite having all these articles and laws, there is still a challenge when it comes to respecting and implementing them
Patrice Mulama, the executive secretary of the High Media Council says that Journalists should not be denied access “even at places or events that are highly secured by security agencies.”
The media law under article 57 states the type of information or scenarios where information can be denied to the media, These mainly include inforrmation relating to security and information that would incite hatred or violence within the public.
Mulama blames denial of information to of the lack of an independent law that specifically provides for freedom of access to information and the punitive measures for those who violate it.
Denial of information can be manifested in various ways. Other than being locked out of events, one can refuse to disclose public documents or even refuse to talk to the media upon request.
Earlies this month I was working on a health story for contact f.m. evening news. The topic was whether one can contract the HIV virus from using shaving machines in barbershops.
I walked into King Faisal Hospital and was referred to a nurse who is considered an expert on HIV infection.
Bearing in mind that this information was really important for the public to know since many citizens use barbershops without knowing whether they can contract the virus from a shaving machine used by an HIV positive person.
The expert initially told me that she was busy attending to patients. I waited for more than two hours, but even when she was done, she was still reluctant to talk.
In some cases, the officials would tell you that they are too busy to even afford a minute to talk to journalists.
I booked an appointment with a minister late last year on what the zero tolerance to corruption policy means to the fight against corruption in the country. My focus was on how corruption was affecting the nation’s judiciary.
After several failed attempts to raise the minister for a phone interview, he told me to go to his office. On arrival, I had to wait for close to three hours only to be told that the minister had travelled upcountry.
Such incidences only serve to raise suspicion about whether is something being hidden on purpose.
Information Minister Louise Mushikiwabo says that these problems could be a scenario that has a lot to do with those in authority not paying particular attention to the importance of providing information.
“The government is aware of it and we are working on it,” Mushikiwabo said.
According to reliable sources from the Ministry of Information, an “Access to information Bill” that could help solve this problem is in the offing
Mushikiwabo says it is important for reporters to know that they can appeal to the government whenever they are denied access to information
“There is the high council of the media in this country; it should be empowered to help and mediate when there are issues.’’ Mushikiwabo advised.
However, Mulama says that his council does not have any authority to intervene in cases involving high ranked officials refusing to give out information to the press
“The media High Council has no powers to sanction a public official that has been proven as restricting practitioners to access information,” he said “The only thing the High Media Council can do is to sensitize the public about their right to information.”
But why would a public official refuse to share out information when its tax payers’ money that pays them ? Some argue that there could be self censorship amongst the public officials who fear to speak out due to the sensitivity of the topics and the safety of their jobs
However, the Information minister doubts that’s the case. “I don’t know if I would agree that there is self censorship on the side of government officials,” the Minister said in an interview with Contact Fm
During the presidential press conference, Kagame set a high standard when he said that he is always open to Journalists.
“Even those who ask me nothing, or who abuse me, I am available and have been there to give them access,” he said.
Other public officials should therefore borrow a leaf from the president and stop shying away from the media.
The aurthor is a journalist with Contact fm