Kigali— Rwanda, like many democracies, firmly recognises freedom of expression, as a fundamental human right enshrined in Article 19, common to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Along with its corollaries of freedom of information and press freedom, freedom of expression serves as an enabler of all other rights.
As a foundational right, ‘freedom of press, of expression and of access to information’ are solidly entrenched in Article 38 of the Revised Rwandan Constitution of 2015. It recognises that human rights apply equally online and offline.
Over the past two decades, the realisation of press freedom has progressively been on the upward trajectory despite the past tragic history of genocide against the Tutsi in 1994.
Following that tragic episode, the society was horribly fragmented and left in mayhem.
As a result, there was a need to rebuild society and start reconciliation process. Outwardly, the country was more or less a failed state. The very fabric of society had been annihilated, and the pressing need was to rebuild society. Genocide survivors had fresh wounds in their minds due to that tragic episode.
Back then, a big section of people harboured views along ethnic line, inter alia, Hutus, Tutsis and Twas. Such an ethically-minded people wouldn’t live together with prioritising the healing process.
As we saw during the Genocide, the media was potential salt in the wound. As a consequence, press freedom was strictly controlled by Government. In fact, many people were still consumed with genocide ideology, which needed to be rooted out prior to opening up for free flow of information and opinions. Society was deeply polarized.
Different sections of Rwandans with different background and experiences needed to live together. There’re those who never fled the country, there’re those repatriated who had long been living in exile as a result of being denied to freely return to their homeland, and refugees who had fled the country during the RPF-spearheaded Liberation War.
So, to bring together all these sections of people was a mountainous task to the FPR-led Government.
Back then, press freedom was restricted for legitimate reasons so as to avoid rebuilding society while at the cross-purposes. There was a need to pursue a common agenda catering for the general interest. And this was one of the core principles of RPF, which won the liberation war. The situation desperately needed a pragmatic approach to address the pressing issues.
In the context of press freedom, the State-owned media were the only operating, such as Radio Rwanda, TVR and Imvaho Nshya. As the journey for rebuilding the fabric of society continued, so the journey of press freedom. Thus, privately-owned radios, privately-owned TVs, privately owned print media, and privately owned online media proliferated dramatically.
In complying with its international obligations, Rwanda embarked on establishing institutional and regulatory frameworks for press freedom to thrive. There was a ministry of information which was part of the first FPR-installed government in July 1994.
Subsequently, in 2009, the Media High Council (MHC) was established and its responsibilities were, among others, to advocate for media capacity building, participate in initiating and implementing policies and strategies to develop the media sector, build innovative capacities and to produce media content that disseminates and promotes the Rwandan values, culture and products.
These roles were central to awareness-raising for the fundamental role that the press plays in society and for the need to protect media practitioners.
In the same year , law nº 22/2009 of 12/08/2009 on the media was adopted. Later, it was replaced by existing law n°02/2013 of 08/02/2013 regulating media. It was designed to accord rights, obligations, organisation and functioning of media in country for the general interest.
The same media law establishes a media self-regulatory body, currently known as Rwanda Media Commission (RMC), set up by journalists themselves to ensure compliance with the principles governing media and to defend the general interest, as well as applying enforcement measures in the light of the journalistic code of ethics.
In addition to the Media law, there was adoption of law n° 04/2013 of 08/02/2013 relating to access to information. This law was crafted to express more clearly the right of access to information by the public and media practitioners. Such information/data may be possessed by public agencies and some private bodies, which falls in public interest or human rights or freedoms.
Both preceding laws, broadly speaking, intend to solidify the right to seek, receive, give and broadcast information and ideas through any media.
However, as it’s a universally recognised policy, any such access to information doesn’t apply to classified information. To implement this law, a couple of implementing orders were enacted—as a means of bolstering press freedom as well as the public access to information.
Today, the press freedom in Rwanda is realising the familiarly coined ‘fourth branch’ of the government. This has been most recently firmed up in the Supreme Court landmark ruling, which outlawed defamation from the penal code, seen as a curtailment to press freedom, as well as President Kagame’s proposal to outlaw criminal defamation against the President, by codifying it as a civil defamation.
The writer is a law expert.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.