Last week, Cabinet passed a series of important media reforms that include a landmark access to information bill and the final endorsement of government decision to pull out of regulation, leaving it in the hands of the industry.
For once, I was anxiously waiting for a comment from the usual suspects; RSF, CPJ or HRW, at least commending or congratulating Rwandans for the important step. But alas! I was simply day-dreaming. Whoever would call these groups a bunch of extremists overdosed with the urge to simply criticize would not be far from the truth.
But that is a subject for another day.
The reforms that also include a new media policy; amendments to the existing media law, transforming Orinfor into a public broadcaster (including changing its ugly name to Rwanda Broadcasting Agency or RBA) will either make or shame our media depending on how they adjust to fit in the new attire.
I say make or shame for one reason. If the media live to the expectations of these new changes and disprove skeptics, then it will mark a total revolution in the industry. But if they fail to seize the opportunity and instead maintain the status quo, then it will be a total embarrassment to the good gesture.
Why is the access to information bill very important?
Few countries in the world have an access to information or freedom to information law. In our region alone, Rwanda becomes the second country where cabinet has passed this bill. The rest, especially in developing world, the draft is often shelved when it gets to the executive for discussion.
Once this bill is passed by parliament it will be a landmark instrument and an important cornerstone for good governance empowering citizens, especially journalists to seek information held by the public officials with greater ease.
Inadequate access to public information allows corruption to flourish, and greatly infringes on the rights of journalists to investigate back-room deals.
Therefore the media now have an important tool that will help ease the flow of information and put more pressure on government officials to open up. It puts in place punitive measures for any official that seeks to hide information, including cases of possible prosecution, dismal or penalties.
But just like any other law, the tough side of this piece of legislation will be its implementation. It will need a complete change in attitudes and bridging the existing mistrust between the media and government officials. Good enough, government seems to have taken the lead with the latest high level instructions calling on public officials to be pro-active in communicating and explaining their programs.
Coming alongside this bill is also the amiable decision to allow media to regulate themselves, which seems to have caught the fourth estate off guard. Though attainable, this will not be an easy feat, given the existing structural weaknesses in our media.
For self-regulation to be successful two things must happen.
First, the media must understand that a house divided against its self cannot stand. Just like the Bible says in Mathew 12.25, “every Kingdom divided against its self is brought to desolation and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.”
Self regulation must be embraced as a collective responsibility of the media, seen in the true meaning of the word fraternity. For peer criticism to succeed, there must be mutual trust and a common understanding on certain principles that govern the profession. These principles must be guarded jealously and applicable with no form of bias.
The endless jabbing or failure to work as one strong entity that collectively agitates for the interests of the industry should cease, if self-regulation is to move a step. In other words the media fraternity must act as a fraternity indeed.
Second, the code is the most important pillar of any functioning self-regulatory body. The code of ethics should be encrypted in our minds and hearts. It should serve as the guiding light in what we say or write and should be held with high esteem.
But for one to understand and respect this code, you need to first understand the value of journalism to society. Journalism is not only about inciting or seditious headlines. It’s not about photos of Generals on cover pages day-in-day-out. It is not about the wrangling of politicians. The rural farmer, the cross-border trader, the teacher, banker, and businessman---all have to be served.
The media should understand that a man who is his own judge is instead a fool of himself. As members of society, journalists must open up to criticism and own up mistakes they commit. A self regulatory forum ensures that the journalists adhere to their code without compromising their freedoms.
For Rwandan media, the time for irresponsible journalism to take a backseat has come. Are we ready to embrace these new responsibilities? The ball is in our court!