Advice to public institutions: don’t wait for access to information law, take action now
In the past seventeen years, whenever there was a public discussion about the media in Rwanda, most attention was given to two topics: the role of the media during the genocide, and the lack of professionalism among journalists. While those are certainly subjects worth discussing (and that has happened extensively), there is another issue on which there has been much less focus yet which has been a conundrum for the media: access to information, and incompetence of those who hold the information to release it.
Here at The Rwanda Focus (and undoubtedly at all private media), we get the same kind of story week after week. A journalist goes to a ministry to get some plain, basic information, and he returns empty-handed because nobody was available or he couldn’t even get past the reception. Very often they are being asked to write a formal letter requesting the information.
Well, dear public officials, you will never see such a letter from The Rwanda Focus. We are talking here about plain, factual information: details about a certain government program, crime or public health statistics, etc. This is basic information concerning programs the government is implementing to develop the country, and the population (through the media) has every right to be informed about them.
So journalists should not be wasting their time writing letters and then waiting for weeks for the request to be processed; it should be enough for them to show up at the reception with a press card to be referred to a public relations officer (PRO). The latter might not be able to give the information immediately, or might propose that the journalist talks to someone of the relevant department who might not be present, but at least the journalist should be able to leave the building knowing that someone is working to ensure he will get the information soon.
Another problem which journalists often experience, in particular in non-ministerial public institutions, is that all media requests have to be handled by the boss, or maybe his deputy. The PRO, despite his title, has no relations with the press whatsoever – he is reduced to a secretary in information matters. That is of course nonsense, and has more to do with the boss’ need for self-confirmation than with efficiency. Once again, as long as it concerns factual information a PRO should be capable of providing it. In some cases, such as when a journalist questions the relevance or effectiveness of a policy, it is understandable that the boss (whether it’s a director general or a Minister) wants to reply. But even then, despite such people’s busy schedule, it shouldn’t take weeks.
Fortunately, it seems a wind of change is blowing given that a Right to Information law is in the works. This law will guarantee that not only journalists, but anyone in Rwanda, can go to a public institution, request information and receive an answer within a reasonable time.
However, as the above shows, this law in itself will not be enough. What is required is a change of mentality, and increased professionalism in how public institutions deal with the media. This will require training on all levels, from the receptionist to the Minister. This will also require public officials to abandon the idea that they can dispense information as and when they wish – in fact, this law will mean that de facto all information is public and that anyone refusing that information to the public, or delaying its dissemination, might be punishable (with of course certain exceptions, especially related to national security; although the law should clearly specify when this applies).
So we would advise public institutions not to wait for the bill to be turned into a law, but to start working now on how to become more “information-flow friendly.” Here are a few practical tips:
- Why make people come to your office to find information? This is the information age, and this is Rwanda, the self-professed ICT hub of the EAC! So put as much information as possible online, clearly organized and easily accessible. Reports, news, announcements, … put it out there.
- A PR department is a strange thing. It is never going to contribute to your core activities: in Mininfra, for instance, PR is not going to build roads or generate electricity; at Minisante, PR is not going to vaccinate a single baby. But without PR, you’re like an engine running without oil – you will still move on, but it will be so much more difficult. PR informs the population of what you are doing, does sensitization so that people collaborate or know what is required from them. So take care of your PR department: staff it well and give it the equipment to function properly. Also, make sure the PR department is properly informed; for instance, in a ministry, it should preferably share the office with the permanent secretary.
- Treat the media well (but that should follow from the previous point). Make it easy for them to come to your institution; as mentioned above, it should be enough that someone shows up with a press card for him to be ushered into the office of the PRO. And send us invitations to events, we love them. Don’t be satisfied with just having TV and Radio Rwanda there; after all, sending an extra e-mail doesn’t cost you a thing, does it?
Editor’s note: If we do not mention specific examples in this editorial, it is because we don’t want to single out a specific public institution; we haven’t kept a list of instances where it was nearly impossible for us to obtain simple information, and it would be unfair to highlight the more recent ones which we still remember. The few more specific examples we mentioned do not mean we have had any more problems with those particular institutions; it happens everywhere and all the time.