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By Gonza Muganwa
The beginning of the new financial year saw the final demise of the Ministry of Information whose slow death has been going on for some time. Since the departure of Louise Mushikiwabo to the more relevant and powerful docket of Foreign Affairs and the decision not to appoint a substantive replacement, the writing was on the wall- no one needed this ministry. Certainly this column is not lamenting the demise of MINFOR but remember to give due credit.
Firstly what is the role of a Ministry of Information, I would think of two things, one to formulate public policy so as to advance the media sector and free expression in the country. Secondly to communicate government programs and positions on issues; it is said these roles are now under various government departments.
There is lots of evidence that having failed to come up with an interventionist media policy that can win popular support, government has decided to get out of the business of trying to micro -manage media. Well and good, this is the best way since in a modern market economy media is largely business and should be left to the vagaries of market forces.
The immediate in charge of the ministry Minister Protais Musoni and Director General Kabagambe had pursued a good policy of engagement and dialogue reason why major reforms have kicked off, and ironically reduced the relevance of the same ministry.
The reforms underway to improve the media situation could produce results if they are seen through. The biggest of the reforms is supposed to be the reduction of statutory regulation in exchange for media self regulation thus reducing the powers of that little loved institution called the Media High Council.
But this is not without complication; the ability of the media sector to organize itself is abysmal. Media self regulation is supposed to be anchored by the associations but currently they are poorly led, incompetent and largely dysfunctional. It will be a tough call for the associations or whichever is put in place to suddenly become competent and functional enough to be able to carry out this important responsibility of self regulation.
The challenge the media practitioners have faced in trying to convince the parliament to decriminalize defamation in the ongoing review of the penal code shows the entrenched mistrust for media that is in large sections of the political class. A general shift in attitudes can only result from the media industry itself convincing the skeptics that it is actually a force of good. This does, however not discount the fact that there are people who use weaknesses in the sector to suppress free speech so as to hide their own failings.
The onus is always on the professionals to up the ante and deliver a quality product for the audience. This is still hard because the historical structure weaknesses allowed all types of characters to find their way into the media and still play a role, it will be sometime before they are gotten out by market forces.
It is more logical for more competent practitioners to emerge and push out the incompetent rather than force it via the force of law which has so far failed exemplified by the process to amend the media law hardly two years since its promulgation. Certain things need tact other than force to get right and free speech is one.
In media, the government’s main interest is its own image and ability to effectively communicate public policy. The soon to be established office of the government spokesperson should competently handle that; government communication remains tricky despite the obvious goodwill and intentions of the top leaders.
For instance last year at the beginning of the president’s second term, the Prime Minister Makuza while articulating the program before parliament and at a media briefing a few days later, he made it clear that he has issued a decree to all government organs to be able to communicate policy and any other relevant information within 24 hrs. However, the willingness at the top is rarely seen through the bureaucracy. It is almost rocket science to convincing some government officials to debate on radio talk-shows to elaborate policies falling within their dockets.
Many journalists continue to complain of that hated phrase they hear so often; “sorry, am in a meeting.. ndi munana” when seeking comment from officials. At times it is not just about the refusal but could a result of structural weaknesses for instance many public officials still believe they need permission to speak to media even on issues they are the experts on.
Another factor is when the topic at hand is too controversial that no one can dare open their mouth on record. Few public officials have the trust and competence to speak on behalf of government on controversial issues like Justice Minister Karugarama and Mushikiwabo. I always wonder why the Press secretary to the president never speaks on behalf of the boss like it happens in many countries.
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