The current media law has only been in place since August 12, 2009, yet calls for its amendment are already rife. As a matter of fact, efforts to review the law seem to be spearheaded by the government itself, not for the purposes of introducing, rephrasing or deleting certain articles to enhance government control of the media, but to ease regulation and to make the profession more convenient for practitioners.
It should be recalled that, following its promulgation, the new law was widely praised and described as a gateway to a truly professional and vibrant media industry. Many thought the new law would help fix the mess that was created by the loopholes that existed in the 2002 Media Law, which was blamed for the mushrooming of unfocused, unstaffed and unprofessional media organs to the detriment of the society.
Some, though, remained doubtful whether the new piece of legislation was the best our country could have, considering that, in so many ways, it looked more designed to target certain sections of media, instead of building a media that would play a meaningful role in this country’s fast-paced development process. Some cynics thought that the new law, somehow, failed to provide us the opportunity to build a media sector that reflects the aspirations of the new Rwanda, and instead sought to keep us hostage to the media’s negative role in our country’s tragic past. Others predicted that its implementation would only be experimental, and kept their fingers crossed.
Indeed, it was the consideration of many media practitioners that the new law, while largely better than the previous one, was more restrictive, and assumed that advanced classic schooling was the basis for media professionalism. As such, practitioners never ceased to challenge some of the provisions of the new legislation, which resulted in slight improvements.
Yet, with only 17 months of implementation, the general feeling is that the new law isn’t perhaps going to help us solve the underlying challenges in our media industry. Some think it is not practical enough, and that insisting on its strict observance, would undermine our broad and dynamic strategic thinking as a progressive nation. And some of its clauses are arguably contestable in the courts of law based on the letter and spirit of other pieces of legislation.
It is fair to state that it is difficult for the new law to withstand the growing criticism for years, let alone lasting for seven years as the previous one.
Ironically, the most contested articles, at the moment, are the very ones that had been widely praised as poised to usher in a new era in our media sector. These are the very articles that embodied the departure from the previous legislation; strike them out and the difference between current and previous laws will be razor thin.
Take the example of Articles 2 (7) and 24 (especially clause 8). The former concerns the definition of a journalist, including a requirement to have at least a university degree in journalism/communication or in any other field but with training background in journalism, while the latter is about the minimum capital required to start up a media organ. Both provisions were, apparently, introduced to help eliminate/bar fellows without sound formal education background, as well as existing and potential media owners that lack a certain level of financial capacity from the media. Has the experience of the last 15 months proved these legal requirements retrogressive?
Are these provisions compellingly relevant with our country’s media context? Or such requirements were designed to target certain ‘unqualified’ individuals and media organs that were deemed unprofessional, as some have argued.
For media entrepreneur Albert Rudatsimburwa, the university degree requirement has more to do with what he calls the ‘Astrida syndrome’ – a conservative mindset that considers a university degree as everything, and that one is nothing without such papers – as he elaborately put it in an opinion piece in this newspaper last Saturday. Several others have rightly argued that a media organ that lacks capital will die a natural death, since every business enterprise is subject to market forces.
Similarly, articles 76 (penalties for irregular publication), 38 (obligation to submit a copy of every newspaper published to a designated archives organ) and a couple of others have come under intense scrutiny. It has been argued – and some government bureaucrats share this understanding – that the Media High Council does not need to suspend or ban a media organ that fails to honour its periodicity because failure to publish or broadcast is hurting enough.
Indeed, regulation is uncalled for in that scenario, since inconsistent media houses would certainly face public disapproval. Commenting on the obligation of publications to give copies of their newspapers to a statutory organ for future reference, a seasoned journalist-turned-politician told me recently that the provision may actually be in contravention of property law. “One has absolute ownership of their property; I don’t find it legally appropriate for people to obliged to give away their property,” he argued.
The same gentleman had an interesting opinion on the ongoing defamation debate. “People should understand that media houses are business entities. The best way to punish someone is to hit them where it hurts most; and for media, nothing is more hurting than monetary fines.”
Indeed, instead of insisting on sending journalists to jail – which may prove costly, both economically and politically, to the state – why can’t our lawmakers decriminalize defamation for the good of us all?
That momentum is already gathering to amend a law that is only 15 months old shows that we need more inclusive, broader consultations and consensus building in our law formulation processes. Only then will our laws stand the test of time.
The author is a training editor with The New Times and 1st VP of Rwanda Journalists Association