October 20, 2019

Is Media Self-Regulation Body a Court or Mediator? Rusizi District Mayor Sends Lawyer To File Case Against Journalist

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Inside the RMC hearing on Friday October 18: On the left were RMC Commissioners, while on left was journalist Stanley Gatera and Me. Cyprien Nsabimana, who had been sent by Rusizi district mayor. The session was attended by other journalists since the hearings are public (Photo by Christopher Hitayezu/Twitter)

The Mayor of Rusizi district Kayumba Ephraim last week filed a complaint with the Rwanda Media Commission (RMC) against a journalist but in an unprecedented move, failed to show up in person as is required in such cases.

Mayor Kayumba accuses journalist Gatera Stanley, editor of Umusingi, a Kinyarwanda language news site, of publishing a story with fabricated information. The mayor also said in the complaint that the photo used in the story was deliberately selected to undermine him.

In the first RMC hearing, this past Friday October 18, Kayumba sent his lawyer Me. Cyprien Nsabimana to represent him. On the other hand, Gatera appeared in person and alone.

Umusingi ran the story on September 25 titled; “Meya wa Rusizi uburyo yasuzuguye abanyamakuru agaterana amagambo nabo bigaragaza ko n’abaturage n’abandi ayobora batorohewe“. (translated as: The manner in which the Mayor of Rusizi disrespected journalists and engaged in angry exchanges with them also shows how much the people he leads suffer)

The story is from on a visit by several journalists including Gatera himself made to Rusizi district earlier that week. As a matter of courtesy, the journalists agreed to meet with Mayor Kayumba so that he could be able to respond to any issues the media tour may have found in his region.

According to Umusingi article, the Mayor kept them waiting for over 2 hours. When he finally arrived, he was behaving arrogantly and did not show any regret for treating journalists in what they deemed a disrespectful manner.

The article, placed in the Amakuru (“News”) section of the site, goes on with the writer’s commentary about the Mayor. The article sounds more as an editorial or opinion piece than news reporting.

The accompanying photo shows the mayor gesturing, in a seemingly combative way. There are voice recorders before him, and reporters.

During the first complaint hearing this Friday, Gatera reportedly requested the RMC panel presiding over the hearing that he be allowed more time to find a lawyer as well. He was grated his requested. The next hearing was moved to November 1. The Mayor’s lawyer was also informed that the complainant himself must also show up.

It is this request to bring a lawyer by Gatera so that he can be on an equal playing field with his accuser and the fact that RMC did not clarify whether lawyers are required in such hearing and their role that has caused a storm in the media fraternity. The subject has been a major topic on Twitter and journalists’ WhatsApp groups.

Many are wondering: Is RMC a court of law or a mediation platform? Are lawyers allowed in mediation hearings relating to complaints against journalists on possible violation of the journalistic code of ethics? What is the proper mandate of RMC? How is it prosecuting it?

The Rwanda Media Commission, known by its acronym RMC, is partly a creature of the 2013 media law that provides, under Article 4, for the possibility of journalists creating an independent body to regulate themselves. This idea originate from a cabinet decision in 2011 that granted media self-regulation and scrapped statutory regulation at the time overseen by the Media High Council.

Anybody with a complaint against a media house or individual journalist concerning their work, is required to file a complaint to RMC. Public hearings are usually held by bringing both parties to the same table and adjudicating the case on the basis of what parties to it say in relation to the published or aired story and what the code of ethics demands.

RMC also does its own monitoring of the media and can summon a media house or journalist over a story it deems unethical.

Once a decision on a complaint is taken, a public statement will usually be issued detailing the ruling and required course of action or remedy.

A media can be asked to retract the story, and publish or air an apology, or the complainant could be told there is no case to answer.

A partial screenshot of the said story as published on Umusingi website

Under the RMC rule-book, both parties are obligated to appear in person. However, whether the two sides should bring a lawyer or not, is not clearly clarified in the RMC regulations.

“We don’t have a specific provision that regulates [bringing lawyer or not], but the central idea about self regulation is to mediate which requires no lawyer[s]…,” Emmanuel Mugisha, the RMC Executive Secretary told The Chronicles this Sunday.

“….but it’s OK to be accompanied by a lawyer just in case you decide to file a case with the courts of law.”

In several of the more than 360 complaints RMC has handled so far, Mugisha says some parties brought lawyers but the need for the lawyer is a choice of either party, not RMC. In such cases, lawyers act as advisers to their clients.

During the hearing sessions, it is the RMC panel – composed of Commissioners – themselves journalists and some members from the civil society, the complainant and the accused who speak.

There is however no clear limitation to what the lawyer can do inside the hearing, and is actually also allowed to speak during the hearing.

Mugisha explains: “…in the interest of finding a common ground, [lawyers] may be allowed to say something as long as it is helpful in finding a solution. Say for example making a comment on any provision of the code of ethics for clarity and its application to a particular case.”

With regard to the Rusizi Mayor’s case, the lawyer Me. Nsabimana was told in the Friday hearing to ask his boss to come in person.

However, the accused, Gatera, who is not short of controversy himself, told The Chronicles that he had spoken to the mayor and they agreed to drop the complaint.

Asked if he had made any concession to the mayor to convince him to withdraw the complaint, Gatera said: “Nothing, we discussed and found there is no need to continue with the case so we agreed to stop and inform RMC”.

He said they will together inform RMC of the decision to withdraw the complaint on Tuesday or Wednesday next week.

Mayor Kayumba also told The Chronicles that “it was no longer necessary” to discuss his complaint. He declined to make any further comment on the issue.

The RMC was originally created as a voluntary peer-based system of enforcing the journalistic code of conduct and amicably addressing complaints from the public about unethical behaviour by journalists and publications by media outlets. This was also supposed to solve the problem of expensive court cases against journalists as well as addressing alleged unfairness by the then state media regulator, MHC.

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