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A conversation about media self-regulation in Rwanda

The following is a post from the IPI Blog:

By Timothy Spence, IPI Senior Press Freedom Advisor

Rwandan journalist Fred Muvunyi last week became the first head of the new Rwanda Media Commission, a seven-member self-regulatory body. It is a first for a country with a spotty record of press freedom and a history of self-censorship*.

The commission itself was created by a government statute in March. That alone should raise concerns about the intentions of the Rwandan government. ARTICLE 19 notes that the law defines the responsibilities of journalists - including their duty to “promote leisure activities” - and does little to strengthen journalists' ability to ward off court orders to reveal their sources. The new law also requires reporters and editors to be accredited, a practice that always gives the authorities the power to bully journalists by threatening to pull their credentials. And it remains to be seen how independent the commission can be when most news organisations lack the resources to fund an independent commission.

But Muvunyi, who works for the Izuba Rirashe newspaper and Internet news site, says the panel will be independent and work to improve professionalism while also fighting to protect press freedom.

“We have three responsibilities,” Muvunyi told me by telephone, five days after the new commission was sworn in on Sept. 26. “We have to protect media freedom, we have to register the new media houses and [provide] accreditation to journalists, and we have to promote ethics and media professionalism.

“One of the challenges that we have is protection of press freedom here in our country,” he continued. “That is the main thing we are going to concentrate on, and promoting media ethics. Those are two things that we are going to work hard on.”

Excerpts from the rest of our conversation follow:

IPI: Your country has faced press freedom challenges. How successful do you think you can be in defending press freedom?

Muvunyi: I believe we are going to be successful because it is the government's will to promote media freedom now. After the 2011 media policy that was passed by the Cabinet [which calls for more media self-regulation], you find that the government has the goodwill to promote media freedom. And that's why they have decided to put the regulation in the hands of media professionals, not the government as it used to be. So I find that the government has the goodwill to do that.

Secondly, we are going to work hard with the journalists, because if we are together as journalists, as media professionals, I think there is nothing that hinders us getting what we want as far as media freedom is concerned.

IPI: There is a still a government Media High Council. Are you concerned that whatever decision your commission might make, that it will be overturned by the High Council?

Muvunyi: No, because the law gives this Media High Council new responsibilities … to promote capacity building and speaking on behalf of media houses. But also you have to know that another government agency, which is called the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Agency, [is] in charge of regulating the Internet and all these technical issues, but not the content. … The Rwanda Media Commission is supposed to regulate the content.

IPI: Does the new commission represent all journalists – print and broadcast?

Muvunyi: It does involve all journalists – print, radio, television and the Internet. Everyone has to be accountable to this organ. … But we don't have power to [sanction or punish]. It's like being in the middle between the public and the media practitioners to promote media ethics. But on the side of the people who offend journalists, or those people that can hinder media freedom, the only thing we can do is deny that and make public announcements, but we don't have powers to sanction, let's say the security or the government of any other side from the public.

The powers that we have is to tell, for example, that journalists violated ethics, we have the power to tell them that they can correct the issue, you can do a public apology.

One of the things that you need to know is that there are some issues in media - here in Rwanda - issues related to finances. Government is a big advertiser in our media, and some of the newspapers, their business is not vibrant because they don't have access to that advertising. …

In the past, the government has sanctioned some newspapers by not [buying] advertisement. It is something that we need to work on hard and see that these newspapers can really work – writing stories and doing investigative journalism. That is one of the things that we are looking forward to working on hard and seeing that the media changes.

IPI: Financing is a problem everywhere. But overall how free is the media environment in Rwanda?

Muvunyi: From the beginning of March [2013], the Parliament passed the Access to Information Law … That was one step. The second – the change of the media law itself, where the media are going to be regulated by media practitioners, not the government. I find this a big difference.

But … we need to be careful, because there are some people in the government – in the security [services] – maybe they don't understand … maybe they don't understand media freedom. We still see in the past some newspapers that were stopped at the border, there were some journalists that have been beaten by the security, others were handcuffed. We are still sceptical but believe that all these things are going to change in the near future.

IPI: How effective has the new access to information law been for journalists?

Muvunyi: I wouldn't say that it's really working yet. … There are administrative decrees in the pipeline that will allow this law to work. We are still pushing for these decrees to be published in the official gazette so that this law can work effectively. But we are testing to see if the government officials can provide information on time, if we can do investigative journalism without a problem.

IPI: What else would you like to achieve?

Muvunyi: Decriminalising defamation. It is one of the things that I have been following from two years ago. I was not successful then, but we are going to push it in the near future.

* The late Rwandan journalist André Sibomana was named an IPI World Press Freedom Hero in 2000 for enduring death threats, attempted assassinations and intimidation for his reporting on the country's 1994 genocide and its aftermath.

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