Just as I was starting to get into the rhythm of my other personal commitments after negotiating time off my column, conflict, rather than my editor, called me back. Conflict happens to be the staple of my passions, journalism and drama.
The stage for the conflict that aroused my interest, on the evening of Thursday July 29, was none other than the omnipresent British Broadcasting Corporation and the main actor, my friend Marcel Museminari.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Marcel is a respected journalist endowed with multiple talents, one of which is mastery of rhetoric. He does not mind much when once in a long while, I call him a maverick (may be because of respect for age), but if pressed to justify my opinion, I would.
What struck me as fascinating was the way Museminari defamiliarizes issues rarely considered practicable. Consider this: Instead of starting his debate on local radio stations he goes to BBC.
Does he want to accord his discourse an international status? Marcel has been heard on several local radio talk shows, and he would easily have started his debate on a local platform, where, for example, I would have called in to advance my views in response to his concerns. Secondly, while on BBC, he said that he would take his grievances to the Supreme Court.
The veteran journalist called me soon after the BBC broadcast, but I did not ask him why he chose the BBC over local radio stations, as I was eager to know why he was gunning for the Supreme Court.
His response was extremely academic but I doubted whether his concerns or complaints merited legal consideration given that the action by the Media High Council (MHC), was based on the law. He vehemently argued that MHC was trampling on human rights.
My friend could not be dissuaded from his legal intent even after I suggested to him that it was more prudent to first fight for his rights as a journalist and publisher.
Why does the gentleman want to drag the media council to court? The council recently published a list of newspapers, radio and TV stations that had applied and fulfilled the conditions set out in the media law. Out of the over 64 newspapers that have been operating in the country, 22 have been duly licensed, leaving 42 others including Business Daily owned by Museminari in limbo. My logic tells me that these papers have to halt publication until they have registered.
This logic did not provide the expected resolution to the conflict as Museminari’s commitment to legal action sounded unwavering.
“My point is, I want to challenge the law in the constitutional court, because it contravenes the constitution” he said, adding that unfortunately the conflict has come during an election period, when Rwandans were enjoying peaceful campaigns, particularly Kagame’s, American style campaign trail.
So, what is the substance within these issues that cannot be resolved without resorting to time consuming, wasteful legal battles? No, Museminari doesn’t want it that way and takes the debate to a philosophical level.
“Bad laws, need to be challenged, through another arm of the government – the judiciary’” he said. Asked whether he wanted to make history, he quipped “No, but this will be a historical occasion for me as an individual but more `so for the judiciary when the judges pronounce themselves on issues of constitutionality”.
Sometimes, I wonder whether some people’s talents are not misplaced, for certainly my friend’s views may or may not be correct, but they are the kind of views and ideas that would make any parliament productive and lively.
This was a long telephone discussion and the man paying the bill seemed in no hurry, so I let him enumerate his concerns. To Marcel the law was not only too demanding on the journalists in terms of registration of media enterprises but its provisions have been misinterpreted by the council to inconvenience journalists and entrepreneurs.
Examples; Conditions for obtaining a press card are many and cumbersome and while a journalist from other East African countries gets accreditation in Rwanda within a few days on presenting his/her photos, 7000 frw and his home press card, the local counterpart needs to present to the council eight documents including proof of having journalism training from a recognized institution.
The requirement for professional training as a basis of ensuring good media practice elicited a rather interesting argument, “if a biotechnologist or aeronautical engineer has been writing on the subject he knows best, does he need to go to any School of Journalism?
We have talked to colleagues in other parts of the world, where one only needs to be an employee of a media house to be legible for a press card”.
When the following day I called the spokesman of the Media council to comment on Marcel’s concerns, Mr. Mulama was no less eager to go to the constitutional court where swore to beat Mr. Museminari “with his pants down”.
I wasn’t able to reach my lawyer for expert opinion as to who would represent government in the constitutional court, but should it be Mulama, Marcel should expect fire.
Similarly, Mulama will not find it easy to justify the council’s interpretation of the law regarding the 60 - day period of grace offered to the existing media enterprises. Museminari argues that the period of grace was granted for journalists and media houses to have obtained the requisite qualifications and to demonstrate capital outlay of no less than Rwf 60 million for newspapers, respectively.
The complainant’s point of concern here is that the council’s interpretation of the law has hampered the registration process of some existing media enterprises.
Apparently to be registered, an enterprise has to provide the profile of the editor-in –chief who must have qualifications in journalism. Museminari argues that even where the law is clear, the council does not regard the editor-in –chief as a journalist, and, therefore, does not benefit from the grace period. Who is right? Let the debate continue.
My advice to the antagonists in the unfolding drama is that the conflict could be conveniently settled through peer dialogue.
The Rwanda Journalists Association (ARJ) could rise to the occasion and save the situation, and for collaborators, the Civil Society organizations and the Ministry of Information could be brought on board.