Access to Information: A key element of fundamental freedoms

Today, Rwanda will celebrate the World Press Freedom Day, which is celebrated globally on May 3. This day provides an important opportunity for underlining the critical importance of press freedom in particular, but also the broaderprinciples of freedomof expression, in our contemporary society.
Journalists interview a suspect at Kacyiru Police headquarters last year. (Timothy Kisambira)
Journalists interview a suspect at Kacyiru Police headquarters last year. (Timothy Kisambira)

Today, Rwanda will celebrate the World Press Freedom Day, which is celebrated globally on May 3.

This day provides an important opportunity for underlining the critical importance of press freedom in particular, but also the broaderprinciples of freedomof expression, in our contemporary society.

Thus, since its inception in 1993, we have never ceased to utilize the opportunity offered by every anniversary of this day to reflect on the ever growing centrality of the fundamental principles of freedom of expression to democracies and the very idea of a modern society.

It is, therefore, appropriate that this year’s theme is Access to Information and Fundamental Freedoms: This is Your Right! The UN Secretary General’s message on this day vividly conveys to us the intricate connections between access to information, democracy and development in the following words: “Human rights, democratic societies and sustainable development”, he argues, “depend on the free flow of information.

And the right to information depends in large measure on press freedom”.

He also reminds us that this year’s edition coincides with three important milestones: the 250th anniversary of the world’s first freedom of information law; the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Windhoek Declaration on Press Freedom; and the beginning of the 15 year life-cycle of the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)Agenda by all the UN Member States.

The link between access to information, democratic governance and sustainable development cannot be over emphasized as it is the foundation for informed choices and decision making.Within the framework of SDGs, access to information is one of the specific targets of Goal 16, which seeks to promote peace, justice and strong institutions in all societies, by ensuring, among others, public access to information and protection of fundamental freedoms in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.

We could, therefore, assert that access to information is one of the key pillars upon which the whole 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development isanchored.

One of the pertinent questions that could arise is whether we should at all be worried about access to information in the modern world, with all the technologies, information channels and tools available, coupled with the emerging cultural practices of sharing information!

It is easier to argue that we probably have access to more information than we ever had in the history of humanity. With massive search engines such as Google, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, and easily available data analysis tools, one could easily think that we live in times of an information bliss and over-abundance!

While this may be true in terms of the amount of accessibleinformation, a deeper analysisshows that the need for quality information has never been more urgent than it is now.

As the Financial Times put it recently, even with more data available and the tools to analyse it, it is becoming more difficult for citizens to pin down the truth. However, the opportunities given by new technologies should not undermine the intrinsic need for information but instead they should motivate innovation in the way we promote access to, and process, the information as a fundamental right.

The media is, therefore, challenged to make information not only accessible to all, but also render it affordable and simple to digest by all.

In Rwanda, none other than President Kagame has better articulated the linkages between media freedom, access to information and other freedoms. As he observed during the opening ceremony of the 5th EAC/EABC Media Summit in Kigali in 2012, “For the media to tell our story well, it has to have access to the right information and the freedom to disseminate it. This in turn helps it articulate, guarantee and advance other freedoms”. This in our view is clear commitment to media freedom.

In support of this agenda, as the One UN in Rwanda, we have fully recognised the centrality of information to the governance agenda. We have, therefore, worked with various partners such as the Rwanda Governance Board, the Media High Council, the Rwanda Media Commission and the Association of Rwanda Journalists, and in close partnership with the Embassy of Sweden, to support media sector reforms, including for concretizing the principles of media self-regulation, media capacity reinforcement, application of ICT in the media sector, promoting public service broadcasting and the dissemination and implementation of the Access to Information Law.

It is a demonstration of our commitment to leverage the information age, to promote access to diverse and quality information with the view of fostering overall accountability. The UN also supports assessments such as the Rwanda Media Barometer with the aim of tracking progress in media sector reforms, informing policy making and legislation in Rwanda as well as a more solid basis for more dialogue among the different media stakeholders.

Looking back, after Rwanda’s unfortunate experience with the media as an key instrument for the Genocide against the Tutsi, we are proud of the concrete results in terms of the existence of a budding, but strong media architecture, comprising both government institutions and non-government organisations working hard towards achieving and sustaining the gains of the media reforms in Rwanda.

The increase of media houses in Rwanda over the last years shows clearly that the media is not only a tool for accountability but also a potentially important industry for the national economy.

In spite of these successes, there are some challenges ahead. The increase in the number of media houses makes the sector potentially competitive but also challenging to individual actors, especially in terms of professionalism and economic sustainability. There is, therefore, a need to develop profitable media enterprises.

Stakeholders also need to invest more in media capacity development, both at institutional level as well as at individual level, to promote media professionalism in Rwanda. The capacity development efforts should take into consideration the needs of today’s society requiring faster and accurate information through, for example, online tools and social media as well as more rigorous analysis and timely reporting.

In addition, whereas Rwanda is known for its strong capacities to promote home grown initiatives, the media remains an area where technology can provide a better bridge between traditional communications and modern communication for people of different age groups, religion, political opinion, education, etc.

Reflecting on access to information allows us to look at information not only in quantitative terms but, more importantly, in qualitative terms. This focus helps us to see beyond the curtain of abundance.

The increasing undesirable practices such as hate speeches and radicalization that take advantage of the ubiquitous media technologies to promote practices that threaten social cohesion and peaceconstitutes another challenging area for the country must be effectively countered. In this respect, I would like to commend the Rwandan media stakeholders for focusing on the theme Turning the Page on Hate Media in Africa during the national celebrations that are taking place today.

Given the devastating effects of hate speeches in the history of this Country, it is of utmost moral necessity that we all guard against the practice. This was vigorously espoused by President Kagame earlier this year while delivering an address at the Harvard Institute of Politics, when he asserted: “Rwandans value a politics based on inclusion and accountability, Rwandans value public spaces free of hate speech, Rwandans value unity”. Indeed, politics based on inclusion and accountability, public spaces free of hate speech and unity are the key instruments that have made Rwanda become what it is to date.

I would like to strongly commend Rwanda for having adopted a forward-looking approach to issues of access to information. The enactment of the Access to Information Law in 2013, was a commendable step that must be encouraged and supported. Only 11 African countries have enacted such type of legislation to date. This constituted a strong building block for building a vibrant media sector and for addressing concerns expressed by many partners regarding this sector.

All this is underscored by the fact that the most recent Open Data Barometer has ranked Rwanda 2nd in Sub-Saharan Africa and 46th in the world for open data . Obviously, more can be done to leverage these opportunities. As we celebrate the World Press Freedom Day, let us nurture the potential of information for realising our Agenda 2030 as well as the national development and transformational aspirations.

The writer is the One UN Rwanda Resident Coordinator



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