Media self-regulation in Rwanda could be under threat following the resignation of Fred Muvunyi, the former head of Rwanda Media Commission (RMC), last week.
Journalists and diplomats alike have expressed concerns that the media-self regulation body could be headed for difficult times following revelations by the outgoing chairman that his removal from the commission was planned by senior government officials.
Mr Muvunyi, who is out of the country, released messages allegedly shared between senior officials who were allegedly plotting to oust him from RMC and install someone whom they could “control,” something that has worried the media fraternity.
It is now feared that the institution, which previously operated with independence, is most likely to fall under government control as local journalists prepare to elect a new chairperson in less than two months.
The journalists now fear that the gains made over the past two years could be lost if the State moves to tighten its grip on RMC, in what could lead to co- or indirect regulation rather than self-regulation.
The independence of the board and the current leadership is in question with both the Rwanda Governance Board (RGB) and the Ministry of Local Government moving to control the affairs of the commission.
“We have to first agree on who should lead RMC and how that person will be voted into office in a manner that will appear transparent; that is how it is done elsewhere,” one of the text messages released by Mr Muvunyi reads. “That Muvunyi guy caught us off-guard.”
Journalists now fear that the elections will not be transparent and a person fronted by government officials is most likely to ascend to the coveted position.
“I think journalists should be given priority to choose who they want to replace Muvunyi if RMC has to remain the credible institution it is today,” argued Gonzaga Muganwa, a local journalist and executive secretary of Rwanda Journalists Association (ARJ).
Robert Mugabe, a media freedom advocate and editor of the Great Lakes Voice, warned that an attempt by the government to impose someone on journalists to take over at RMC would take the country back to the dark days and remove the gains that have been made over the years.
“We cannot afford to go back to what the situation was 10 years ago,” said Mr Mugabe. “The gvernment has to trust journalists to be able to regulate themselves and that will has to be there; otherwise, we risk going back to the past when journalists and the government had constant run-ins.”
Mr Mugabe warned that the State might succeed in imposing someone who might win elections but RMC will have lost its legitimacy and the trust journalists had for it.
“We are concerned by these developments and we hope the government will desist from interfering with the affairs of the commission,” a diplomatic source told Rwanda Today on condition of anonymity.
The independence of the RMC board has become a matter of contention with journalists insisting that the incident which ticked off the misunderstandings between the commission and officials, eventually leading to Mr Muvunyi’s resignation, created doubt about the autonomy of the top leadership.
The acting chairman, Cleophas Barore, and some members of the board have been accused by journalists of not being independent enough to make decisions on their own. Addressing the press following the resignation of Mr Muvunyi, Mr Barore denied that the institution was under pressure from the government.
Mr Mugabe warned that if the government continued with its alleged plans to take over RMC by influencing the elections, the body will lose legitimacy.
“In any regulation, you can’t regulate the profession without the legitimacy and support of the regulated,” Mr Mugabe said.
Journalists have noted that some members of the board have exhibited a lack of independence going by the statements made in the media by some of them.
Efforts to get a comment from Minister for Local Government Francis Kaboneka were futile by press time but the head of communications at the ministry, Ladislas Ngendahimana, denied that there was a plan by the government to take over RMC.
Mr Ngendahimana said media self-regulation was an initiative of the government and so it could not “fight its will, initiative and product.”
He said: “The Rwandan government supports media self-regulation in principle and practice, never moving backward. We keep investing in capacity building and advocacy.”
Mr Ngendahimana said the issue was not about the state of the media report but Mr Muvunyi’s conduct.
Source of discomfort
RMC’s — and partly Mr Muvunyi’s — independence have been a source of discomfort between the government and the commission, something media observers say prompted the government to find a way to rein in on the body which was established in 2013.
The latest source of misunderstanding was the state of a media report which was supposed to be released during the Press Freedom Day celebrations on May 3 but it was allegedly blocked by RGB.
While it noted that there were no recent cases of harassment of journalists, the report highlighted key concerns faced by journalists — including censorship, hostility from government officials who do not want to be accountable and lack of access to information despite a new law in place.
The report also took note of the conflict between RMC and Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (Rura) over the issue of the BBC in the wake of the controversial documentary Rwanda’s Untold Story.
It noted that Rura’s action was seen as undermining the mandate of RMC. But while the report has been shelved, RGB is set to unveil the 2013 Rwanda Media Barometer on May 29.