Do MPs understand that journalists are their partners?

Over a fortnight ago, the Chamber of Deputies overwhelmingly passed a new media bill that will, soon, become law should President Paul Kagame accede to it. The draft law was also endorsed by senators as appropriate for our media industry.

Over a fortnight ago, the Chamber of Deputies overwhelmingly passed a new media bill that will, soon, become law should President Paul Kagame accede to it. The draft law was also endorsed by senators as appropriate for our media industry.

However since then, the approved version of the 99-article bill has become a centre of controversy, sparking heated debates on the airwaves with media practitioners and activists crying foul, and pleading with the Head of State not to sign the document into law.

The issue has raised so much concern that journalists met with the Minister of Information, Louise Mushikiwabo, and compiled a report citing key articles they thought undermined the essence of journalism and would likely move our media from worse to worst.

Now the last word rests with President Kagame, who seven years ago refused to sign the current media law until a clause providing for death penalty for a journalist guilty of inciting genocide was deleted.

Like it was then, all eyes are on the President. And at this stage, all journalists know that they have no one else to turn to; they know it’s only the President who can ‘save’ them. But what are the contentious issues?

From a scale of one to ten, the bill is an ‘eight’. Therefore, on the whole it should be a fine document after all a law can hardly be embraced by all those for whom it was enacted. That is why we have laws and law-breakers.

However, the very few contested articles – perhaps not more than five – are so significant that they overwhelm all the other commendable articles in the new bill.

Probably, the most unpopular one is the requirement for all journalists and cameramen who work for media organizations to hold at least a Bachelors degree or equivalent in journalism or communication from a university or college.

The argument is that someone who graduated in law and got training in journalism can make a better reporter/analyst on legal issues than a ‘professional’ journalist who only graduated in journalism.

Similarly, some have argued that not all journalism graduates have proved to be good journalists when they get into the industry. I agree with both cases.

Indeed, you don’t need newsroom cameramen to be journalism graduates to capture good images. There’re better courses for their own profession.

It is good to have standards. However, any kind of standards must come to make the industry better. Our lawmakers shouldn’t have enacted a law that only portrays them as people who are out of touch with the reality.

If that clause was to be applied today, most of our media organization would shut down and wait until we have such enough and committed graduates in not less than five years. And probably the same thing would happen if all our legislators were to be obliged to be graduates of law.

And so many other business ventures. Such a clause means that the likes of CNN’s Larry King (he didn’t go to university at all!) would be ineligible to become a journalist for a local media outlet in Rwanda.

I believe that a university degree is imperative, but not necessarily in journalism only. I also believe that experience is an issue which cannot simply be overlooked, although, not convincing on its own because you can have ten or so years of bad experience.

Articles 13 and 14 also contain controversial clauses. For instance, Article 13 (2) prohibits a journalist from ‘neglecting essential information….’ Essential information! Who determines which news angle a reporter/editor should take? 

Why should MPs create a situation where politicians define media agenda, and not the media defining its own agenda in the interest of the society?

Why should MPs want us to have a media which reproduces conference keynote addresses or press releases, instead of focusing on real issues that concern the ordinary citizen? Such a media would be irresponsible and retrogressive, to say the least.

Furthermore, Article 14 (2) virtually denies journalists the right to report on critical issues transpiring inside the State organs.

It states: ‘The right to know or to publish documents from executive, judicial or legislative powers may be limited where necessary on considering:….. confidentiality of judicial proceedings, parliamentary sessions in camera, Cabinet deliberations and the trusted authorities coming under the executive.”

What an impediment to accountability and transparence! This clause undermines the spirit of good governance and the limits fundamental right to information. It also contradicts some of the international laws our lawmakers seem to make reference to in the preamble of the bill.

I agree that judiciary should be protected from the pen/mouth of journalists (for the purposes of the due course of the law and judicial independence).

But why should an MP elected into office, and who should be accountable to the people, want to shut out journalists and go an extreme to illegalize publication of parliamentary information?

When I put this question to an MP this week, he cited an example of a closed-door parliamentary session in which the President of the Republic can be discussing issues of national security and sovereignty.

“Suppose we haven’t agreed with the President and we don’t want the press to report about it”, he posed.

My response to him was that that particular case was catered for in part one of the same article (14 (1)) which states that rights to report on issues of confidentiality in national security and national integrity may be taken away from journalists.

In addition, why would MPs want to provide a legal shield to executive officials in matters that have nothing to do with the national security and sovereignty?

Why should a journalist be banned from reporting on deliberations of any organ of the Government, right from Cabinet to the Village level? What will remain of the news if journalists lost those news-grounds?

Why not let journalists report issues and only bring them to book when they fail to abide by the law, other than confining them to workshops and cocktails? Such a clause would not only affect journalists, but would affect citizens and the nation at large.

In fact this provision undermines the importance of Article 79 which compels officials to provide information to journalists, and failure of which they could be charged in the courts of law and fined between Frw100, 000 and Frw300, 000 on conviction.

Although we need an elaborate Access to Information Act, this development is a positive step. My worry is that it will be difficult to implement it given other highly limiting provisions in the same draft law, including Article 14 (2).

Our MPs have also done a disservice to this otherwise progressive country by refusing to decriminalize libel and defamation as repeatedly requested by media practitioners and activists.

They instead made the new draft law silent on the matter, and claimed that it would be decided in the new draft penal code. Their argument was that journalists were equal before the law as other citizens and therefore should not have a special case on libel and defamation.

Indeed journalists are the same as other people before the law, but it is also true that they are more likely to land in defamation trap than anybody else.

In addition, most democratic countries and those going through democratic transition repealed libel and defamation and made them civil cases. What do we benefit as a nation in keeping that stance?

I doubt our draft media law serves the purpose. All state actors, particularly MPs, need to start looking at the media as partners in this country’s development, and not adversaries.
The writer is 1st Vice President of Rwanda Journalists Association (ARJ)

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