Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Access to Information Law a progressive move, experts say

journalistJournalists and media experts see a progressive step in terms of media development and good governance as Rwanda moves to implement a new law aimed at further ensuring a free media and easing access to information.

Rwanda became the 11th country in Africa to have an Access to Information law in March 2013. Since then, modalities to set stage for the smooth implementation of the law have been underway.

The latest development in this direction is the approval of five Presidential and ministerial orders by the Cabinet last month to complement the law.

Now, all public institutions as well as private entities which are bound by the Access to Information Law (AIL) will have a maximum of two days to provide information that’s being sought by a journalist and three days in case of an ordinary citizen (from the date of submission of request) once the new ministerial orders are published in the Official Gazette later this month.

Local journalists and media experts say the legislation will be a good base to start a conversation about nurturing the culture of openness and a society in which the media will be free and prosperous.

“Some of the ministerial orders are very progressive, especially on the time limit for releasing information. It’s very good for us that we have this time limit,” said Gonzaga Muganwa, a Kigali-based freelance journalist.

The head of the Rwanda Media Commission, Fred Muvunyi, agrees with Muganwa on the importance of the newly approved orders to implement the AIL.

More effort needed 

“We have a society where people are very reserved and a lot of information kept a secret. I hope this will change,” he said.

The other countries with access to information laws in Africa are Angola, Ethiopia, Guinea, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Advocate Pansy Tlakula, who is a Commissioner and Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information at the African Union Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) has welcomed the development.

“It’s commendable to note that Rwanda is the 11th country in Africa to have a comprehensive right to information law,” she said in a letter addressed to President Paul Kagame.

But experts say that more efforts are needed, especially by journalists, to ensure that the Access to Information law is implemented, to have the desired impact.

Failure to implement the law has been the main challenge in more than 90 countries around the world where some form of freedom of information legislation exists.

“The key is to make sure that the Access to Information Law is implemented. Freedom is never free and it’s the same for freedom of information. It has to be demanded; it’s up to journalists to take steps to ensure that the law is implemented,” said Dr. Christopher Kayumba, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Rwanda’s College of Arts and Social Sciences.

Officials at the Rwanda Governance Board (RGB) are also aware of the need to sensitise people on the importance of releasing information and the board is launching a programme on media laws literacy tomorrow.

Aimable Semukanya, the RGB legal advisor said in an interview last month that the AIL and related orders are in line with the government’s policy to promote transparency and accountability for both public and private works.

“The law (access law) will help our country to operate in a more transparent way. They will also help to provide better services to citizens,” he said.

Journalists have also said that they will keep pushing the government to open up more and drop some of the existing restrictions while releasing information in some restricted areas such as foreign affairs and high level government procurement.

“Why should what our government has decided to do with other governments be kept a secret?” Muganwa wondered, apparently alluding to some of the stipulations for protection of information related to foreign relations under the AIL.

Muvunyi also said that the government should keep revising the ministerial orders to ensure that the country’s policy for free media is not compromised.

Public institutions, private firms, and NGOs are all bound by the AIL as long as they deal with  matters of general public interest, human rights and freedom of people in the country.

They are all obliged to release unrestricted information to the general public and journalists in particular.

Access to Information Law a progressive move, experts say


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