I happened to overhear an interesting conversation last week. Two people were discussing this newspaper’s decision to publish some of the names on the Ombudsman’s list of senior officials who didn’t comply with this country’s Leadership Code.
This Code makes it obligatory for those in positions of leadership, in the public sector, to declare their wealth. Obviously this is easier said than done because, if reports are to be believed, after months of waiting, Mzee Tito Rutaremara was forced to forward the names of the wayward leaders to the Office of the Prime Minister, Bernard Makuza.
I wouldn’t have known the names of those fellows if it wasn’t for the bane of officialdom and the best friend of the responsible media: ‘The Leaker’. I can say this with all certainty; we have errant leaders in all sectors of government.
We’re talking about respected members of the police, army and judiciary. We have members of the diplomatic corps and academia. Very few arms of government can say that their officials have declared their wealth, 100 percent.
What do all these people have in common? Their salaries come courtesy of my taxes. And guess what? If I’m going to pay someone’s salary, then I want to make sure that he/she isn’t doing something I wouldn’t approve of. I want my leaders to be squeaky clean. And if there is a whiff of impropriety, I want to know about it.
That’s my opinion on the matter. However, as I eavesdropped into the conversation, I learnt that one of the parties had a different opinion from mine.
She was of the view that these names should have been kept from public knowledge. I shall attempt to quote her word for word. She said that the “printing of that controversial list lacked wisdom and foresight. Wow!
She believed that the Office of the Ombudsman is a light house that marks dangerous shores for public servants. Therefore Mzee’s decision not to publicise the list was in the hope that a media story (with no names) would convince the reluctant “ships” to steer away from the dangerous cliffs.
According to her, the decision to publish the names without consultation with the Ombudsman’s Office just blew the ships straight into the rocks.
It became even more interesting. She went on to say that the “insider” who leaked the names had a serious lapse of judgment. She said that the ‘leaker” broke the parameters of their official function, deliberately overstepping the established protocol for the circulation of government information.
Honestly, she made a few valid points. I began to question my belief in the public’s right to know. I did a bit of research and the first point of reference was our fundamental law, The Constitution.
Article: 34 states that “Freedom of press and freedom of information are recognized and guaranteed by the State…
“Freedom of information shall not prejudice public order and good morals, the right of every citizen to honour, good reputation and the privacy of personal and family life…”
I shall attempt to translate this article into layman’s language. “As long as information that is being obtained, or obtained already, isn’t damaging to the Rwandan community as a whole and pertains to public figures in their public capacity, then it’s okay.”
Therefore, was publishing the list damaging to the community? No. Did publishing the names somehow violate the leaders’ private lives?
To the best of my knowledge, no. Therefore, the public’s right to know what was going on wasn’t clashing with either security concerns or good morals.
Now that we’ve established that the public had a right to know, I’ll go to the next issue, whether The New Times was correct in publishing the names of the leaders.
Did it act irresponsibly by exposing these leaders dirty linen in public? Especially since the information didn’t come from an ‘official’ source?
I think the debate shouldn’t just involve this one case, but should move towards a proper understanding of the role of the media.
What is the responsibility of the media? The mass media have a basic responsibility to help strengthen and support democratic processes by acting as a government watchdog and as an instrument to disseminate necessary information.
Did The New Times disseminate necessary information? In my humble view, yes.
What about the ‘Leaker’? I think this person should get a pat on the back. As a responsible citizen, he/she put first the interests of the country and worked for the Rwandan public.
And the Rwandan public deserved the right to know the names of these officials who refused to adhere to the rules that their representatives in Parliament imposed on them.