Rwandan journalists will next year get legal assistance in their investigative journalism work as part of promoting local reporters to have access to information, the Legal Aid Forum has revealed.
The two- year project which will be part of implementation of the access to information law, will be funded by the Legal Aid Forum and will start January 2020 with citizens and media benefiting from the project.
In Rwanda, a defense lawyer can charge from Rwf500, 000 for a civil or criminal case and over Rwf1.5million for business and political cases.
This legal aid comes as a way of encouraging journalists to do investigative reporting and preventing worry about the legal consequences in publications, an issue raised at the International conference on “Improving access to information for free press and good governance” held in Kigali on Friday December 27, 2019.
“The intention is to have both media and citizens have freedom of expression and access to information but we will also provide capacity building and training on the law to create awareness of its existence,” said Jean Paul Ibambe, a lawyer with the Rwanda Legal Aid Forum.
In 2013, Rwandan media managed to have a law of access to information passed and its legal framework in place under the custodian of the Ombudsman’s office.
However, reports indicate that majority of the public officials and journalists themselves are either not aware or don’t use the law.
For example, a research on media and access to information shows that 7.5% of journalists were not aware and 37% of them aware but never used the law at all, although over 50% were aware of its existence.
At the conference, it was noted that local media has started enjoying the benefits of the access to information law, but with challenges of awareness and capacity building remaining a problem for both media and official sources of information.
For instance, Rwanda Journalists Association (ARJ) said that there is delay in officials releasing information and this is mostly caused by lack of clarity and the criteria on which information is or not classified.
“We have not fully exploited the law in itself so as to build ground for the future media to benefit as we did on advocating for scrapping of some penal code laws which were strategically selected and successfully passed,” Gonzaga Muganwa, the Executive Secretary of Rwanda Journalists Association (ARJ) said.
So far, Rwandan media fraternity has managed to have six penalties scrapped from current penal code laws – especially the ones on defamation of officials, the person of the president and religious symbols but is still pushing for removal of penalty on edited images and videos.
In order to pull benefits out of the access to information law, Berna Namata, the Thomson Foundation Africa Specialist, which recently trained online (e-learning) over 100 Rwandan journalists and shortlisted 8, to travel to London in January 2020, for a study tour about investigative journalism importance of the law, said that the media has to take its credibility seriously.
“For instance when a reporter publish stories, they are at times faced with public officials referring to their credible news as ‘fake news’. We should be able to say no and have this as our next challenge to stand by what is published,” Namata said.
Besides lack of access to information challenges, the conference also highlighted the need to increase participation of women and persons with disability (PWDs) after a survey showed that there are fewer disabled persons in the sector.
For example, of the 25 (most active) media houses, 15 persons with physical, visual speech disability are employed compared to the number of employees (802 journalists) according to the national barometer report.
Of these, majority of them are journalists and two editors while others (2) are technicians.
As a way of finding solutions, Rwanda Media High Council (MHC) revealed that they have plans to introduce a media capacity building integration strategy in which several organizations will be asked to train media practitioners on their services and facilitate them in covering stories as a way of improving relationship between media and organisations.
In one of the immediate interventions, Denyse Kanzayire, the MHC Head of Media Capacity Building, said that they plan a long term training of journalists on sign language skills, after the recent first graduation of 14 journalists from 14 TV stations.