Last Thursday, a communication and public relations manager from a key public institutions walked into The New Times Publications offices in Kimihurura to request for coverage of a function organised by his agency.
On seeing him, I thought he was a god-send, since I believed he was going to be helpful on a story one of my colleagues was working on, regarding the merger of two public entities, one of which the gentleman works for.
Indeed, the previous day had seen the Cabinet appointing top leaders of the newly created body. It so happened that the boss of the man who visited our offices that morning had been named a deputy head in the new parastatal. So, typical of dynamic newsrooms, we thought we were lucky to host someone who’s not only an insider in one of the affected (read merged) institutions, but also ‘Mr Right’ going by what was written on the business card had keenly handed to us with (Communication and Public relations Manager).
I was the first to let him know that, while we were going to cover their function the following day, we needed his clarification on a few things about the goings on in his institution as a result of the merger decision and subsequent appointment of senior executives of the new body. His facial expression said it all upon hearing my request! His glowing face disappeared, and effectively replaced with one of a distressed and anxious man! “Ngyewe?,”
he exclaimed, “Banyica, mbivuze ko naba ntakaje akazi kanjye burundu kandi nfite umuryango (You mean you want me to be the one to talk to you? That would, for sure, mark my end; I would immediately lose my job yet I have a family to fend for).
He went on, “No one in our office can dare talk to the press. Not even myself. Only the boss does. That’s the rule. Period.”
I knew he was genuine, but somehow managed to convince him to talk to my colleague, no matter how little he knew, or was willing to divulge, after assuring him that his name wouldn’t appear anywhere.
Little wonder local media often use the phrase “spoke on condition of anonymity because he/she did not have the ‘right’ to talk to the media” (even when the official title and TORs suggest otherwise!).
Although I have for long known that most public institutions recruit PROs and communication officers/managers as a matter of formality, the dilemma faced by the Communications manager just reminded me of the enormous challenges the Rwandan public face in accessing information.
Even when the Terms of Reference for PROs/Communication managers may sometimes include such duties as ‘talking to and liaising with the media and promptly responding to media/public queries’, many PROs/communication managers actually do things that have little to do with their TORs.
Some spend all their time begging for signatures from their bosses for outgoing official letters they have drafted all day, and then delivering them by hand to the intended recipients while being careful not to forget to carry a copy along for reception stamp.
You find them doing filing for official correspondence even when there’s someone next to them with a title of Administrative Assistant. It’s a shame that their principal roles have often been usurped and abused by their conservative bosses, who have reduced them to courier and filing officers.
Interestingly, the day before my encounter with the communication/PR manager, the Cabinet had approved the Draft Law on Access to Information, the first of its kind in the country.
It’s a hugely significant step towards compelling officials to stop withholding and concealing public information.
Considering that the drafting of the bill started only after the directives of the 2009 Annual Leadership Retreat, I’m confident that, in a few months time, Rwanda will become one of the few African countries with an Access to Information Law.
In fact, according to Henry Maina, a director with Article 19, Rwanda could go on to enact and enforce the law well before the majority of the other African governments which long instituted similar laws but could not implement them.
He observed that of the seven similar legislations across the continent, only South Africa can be said to be implementing its own.
The Kenyan activist was particularly impressed by the speed at which Rwanda has finalized its own Bill, drawing comparisons with Nigeria, where a similar law has just been enacted, after two decades of attempts.
Indeed, Rwanda has built a reputation of moving fast, thus the label a ‘country in a hurry.’ Nonetheless, there is little chance that Rwandan bureaucrats will swiftly adapt to a new world where they will have no ‘right’ to monopolise and withhold information with impunity.
Well, the Bill provides for penalties, albeit too lenient considering the offence, including a fine ranging between Rwf100, 000 and Rwf300, 000 (if the case is before the Office of the Ombudsman) and from Rwf100, 000 to Rwf500, 000 (before a court of law), with tougher penalties in case of recidivism (from Rwf1 million to Rwf2 million and/or a prison term of not more than six months).
Besides, all institutions bound by the Access to Information Law will be obliged to designate a public information officer, who will be the directly responsible for releasing the requested information within a specified time-frame.
While ordinary Rwandans will need to be sensitized about their right to public information and to fight for it, those occupying leadership positions will need a complete change of mindset. Yet we must be prepared to remain patient even after the law is enacted.
It may take longer than expected before it makes a genuine difference. Yes, even in Rwanda. After all, he boss of the Communications manager I talked to on Thursday represents many others.