“I am in a meeting. Will call back.,” is how many officials respond to media requests – and never call back. Even worse, reporters have experienced rejection and harassment. Ordinary people who speak to media are also targeted. How open and transparent are Rwandan officials when it comes to journalists requesting information?
In October 2019, The Chronicles wrote an official letter, as demanded by Speaker of Lower Chamber of Deputies Donatille Mukabalisa, requesting access to a public document. More than six months later, we have never received a response.
The Speaker heads an institution that debated and passed the ‘Access to Information’ law in February 2013. The key principle of this law is emphasized in its Article 3, which stipulates that every person has the right of access to information in possession of a public organ and some private bodies.
The law instructs public authorities to proactively publish and disseminate information to the public in a useful form and manner to further the public interest. Campaign for, and formulation of the law started in 2009, with the hope that it would promote greater accountability by public authorities and private bodies.
However, as we now report, from a seven-month investigation involving 12 reporters from six media, public officials still treat the media as a nonexistent sector. Officials paid by the taxpayer, do not see any obligation to provide the public with information. They consider giving information to media as a favour.
The investigation was carried out between September 2019 and February 2020. The team of journalists was assigned different stories, most of which have already been published. The reporters spoke to many officials, but for purposes of this investigation, we recorded 27 of them because they are senior officials from the central and local government.
Their experiences were traumatic for some, and unbelievable for others. They witnessed officials who were unnecessarily rude and dismissive. Several of them told the reporters that they only give information to RBA, the state broadcaster.
Via the Speaker of Parliament, Mukabalisa, The Chronicles was seeking access to the ‘Hansard’. The Hansard is a parliamentary document, which records all debates in the plenary of parliament. Everything said in the House is recorded and stored for future use.
The Hansard is supposed to be a public document. In nearly all countries with vibrant and democratic parliaments, including this region, except for those still embroiled in conflict, the Hansard is published daily or periodically on the parliament’s website.
However, the Rwanda Parliament Hansard is kept as hard copy. The reporter seeking the Hansard was tossed around from one office to another for more than three weeks. Finally, it was the turn of the Speaker herself.
“Go and talk to the Clerk,” Speaker Mukabalisa told our reporter. “She is the one who gives out documents and in charge of other things relating to staff and explain which article you want, and what you want to write about.”
Unable to get the Hansard, The Chronicles sought help from the Office of the Ombudsman, as laid out in the Access to Information law. There, the official in charge advised the reporter that it was not necessary to file a “Freedom of Information Request” (FOIA) which would have compelled the Speaker to give us the Hansard.
The official from Ombudsman Office, whom we have opted not to name, made direct calls to Parliament. Staff there agreed to give us the Hansard. However, the officer in charge sent a WhatsApp message saying if we needed the Hansard, the Speaker had directed that we write an official letter from head of the media seeking the Hansard, also explaining in detail the story being worked on.
The letter detailing why The Chronicles wanted the Hansard, was delivered and signed “Received” on October 24, 2019 at the Parliamentary Secretariat. No response whatsoever has ever been received.
At the Rwanda Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission (RDRC), another reporter was seeking comment from Chairperson Seraphine Mukantabana on ex-combatants who had returned towards end of 2019. Without holding back, she responded: “I only talk to RBA journalists and in press conference, not to any other media.”
She is no longer the chair of the commission, sacked in circumstances that remain controversial to date.
Joseph Mushatsi, Acting Director of Kagugu Health Center in Kigali, has set up his own requirements for reporters who want interviews. Yet he manages one of the main health facilities in Kigali, receiving thousands of ordinary voiceless people.
He told our reporter: “You have to bring a recommendation letter from the Sector office”, and added: “I only answer questions from RBA reporters, not unknown person.”
For years, officials tended to be hostile to media that ask the tough questions, preferring instead to have interviews with the state broadcaster, which lets them blow their own trumpets about their work.
At the Water and Sanitation Corporation (WASAC), CEO Eng. Aimé Muzola, was engaged for three different stories, and by different teams at different times. One of the stories was about persistent problem of water in Kigali’s slums. For all the interview requests, Muzola set the appointments but did not show up. And when another was set, he still didn’t show up, neither did he bother to communicate.
Doreen MAKUMI is the Corporate Communications Expert of the National Bank of Rwanda (BNR), the country’s central bank. A reporter sought for her help to set interview with any senior official. She indicated the bank was busy. On insistence, which is what journalists do to get stories, MAKUMI said: “BNR doesn’t work for your media house!”, and hung up.
The groundless hostility towards media is not seen among government officials only. Kayonde Geoffrey, country director of global adventist charity ADRA-Rwanda, ran a housing project in western Rwanda where billions of Francs may have been stolen. He has a bureaucratic system in his office that requires speaking to different officials, who grant access to him.
Our reporters were asked to write “official email” with all questions, which would be “forwarded” to Kayonde. The team did, but has never received any communication.
Alex RULISA, the in-charge of Mutuelle se Sante at the RSSB, manages a health insurance scheme for more than 10m Rwandans. The system is dogged in problems including lack of medicines and poor medical care. When our team contacted him, he responded: “I have nothing to say to you. Go through the [Public Relations Officer – PR] before contacting me.”
In Nyamasheke district, the reporters called the mayor Mukamasabo Appolonie, over a crisis in her district where underage girls are being married off through a corrupt system. She did not respond to repeated calls. When SMS was sent introducing the reporters and why they needed her, she responded: “I am in meeting in Rusizi”. She did not call back and didn’t answer the calls after.
The forces of Good
All is not gloom however. There are officials who never become tired of speaking to the media.
Former Health Minister Diane Gashumba, is a personality journalists were comfortable approaching. During our probe, the team phoned her seeking appointment. She picked on second attempt. Dr Gashumba listened intently as the two reporters introduced themselves and explained the purpose of the phonecall. For about 6mins, she listened. Our team was investigating allegations that pregnant women are being force on birth control by nurses at health centres.
Of course, as any senior official would, Dr Gashumba pushed back on the claims, but pointed out that indeed if there is any medical official doing that, this would not be tolerated. The conversation was cordial and respectful. Before the end of the call, the former health minister asked the reporters that she would like to be invited to their radio to speak about health issues in Muhanga and Ruhango district.
Another star performer praised by a wide array of journalists across the news divide is Police Spokesman CP John Bosco Kabera. He is perhaps the official who speaks or receives the highest number of media requests in the country.
Calm, and good listener, he is always willing to provide the reporters useful information. When he doesn’t have the information you need, always makes a recommendation. Top of all, he always responds when you send him a message.
Jean Paul Mbarushimana, the communications and public relations officer with the Ombudsman is also widely praised in the media fraternity. He is always eager to connect reporters to any official including quick access to the top boss, the Ombudsman Anastate Murekezi.
Ngoma district Mayor Nambaje Afrodise, Rutsiro district counterpart Ayinkamiye Emmerénce, both came out as hospitable to reporters. Nambaje was busy, and politely directed the reporters to the official with the information needed. Our team needed access to the districts infrastructure plans. This is information that many officials would be adamant to share, yet it is work paid for by taxpayers.
Ayinkamiye, the Rutsiro mayor, found missed call and SMS from our reporters, and immediately called back. She confidently responded to the issue, despite it undermining her district’s image. It is the same issue that the mayor of Nyamasheke refused to speak about.
For Dr. Rutagengwa William, the Director of Nyamata Hospital in Bugesera district, he immediately received the call from our reporter for a story on health insurance issues reported about his facility. He responded; “Please come over tomorrow anytime so that we have enough time to discuss the issue”. It is this sense of responsibility that is lacking in many officials.
When the access to information law was passed more than seven years ago, it came as a welcome relief to the media and international campaign groups which had repeatedly singled out Rwanda for harsh reviews.
This passage of this law shows that the Rwandan government is keen to entrench transparency and accountability as well as enhancing greater participation by citizens in the management of public affairs,” said Henry Maina, Omusundi Maina, Regional Director, ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa, at the time.
“We are enormously proud to be associated with the spirited campaign that has championed this law.”
The latest Rwanda Media Barometer of 2018, published by the Rwanda Governance Board, stated that media freedom in the country stood at 81.3 percent, while access to information is at 76.4 percent.
“The media industry in Rwanda is on an upward trend but the profitability of the sector remains a big challenge,” said Gerald Mbanda, Head of Media Affairs and Communication Department of RGB, at the Barometer’s launch.
However, poor retention of best journalists, lack of media capacity building and lack of journalists’ commitment to media professional codes of conduct pose serious threat to media sector development in Rwanda, according to the report.
The Barometer, compiled since 2013, doesn’t address the tough situations some media and individual journalists have to endure. They are harassed in many offices, ridiculed in others and outrightly ignored in some.
Anti-genocide campaign group Never Again, conducted a two year study on how local officials relate with the villagers they lead. The voluminous research depicted an officialdom with significant influence over the livelihoods of the people, but the latter had very little input in what what was implemented.
And when the media attempt to ask questions on behalf of the voiceless people, they encounter a well-oiled firewall. Local officials have schemes where they keep select lists of people who are referred to media.
When media visit particular areas, Never Again says journalists “meet pre-selected people who have possibly been briefed on what to and not to say,” and they will often say exactly that, to avoid being targeted by officials.
Those who say good things are considered the noble citizens, as illustrated by this interviewee: “One day the media people came to our village, our local leader instructed me what to say in response to their questions. I said a lot of things to make the sector feel good. I became famous in my neighborhood; and whenever people saw me since that interview, they would say that I disclosed the truth. You cannot just say that things are not going well, you would not be able to get any service from the local leaders, you would end up being isolated…”
However, some interviewees in the study, mainly officials, also accused media organizations of limiting their coverage to scandals, reason why the officials said they tend to ensure they control who the media interviews.
There are recorded cases of mainly local officials physically beating people in their localities, or isolating them, for reporting the wrongs in their area. In September last year, sector official in Nyamasheke district sent a person who had spoken to media, to rehabilitation center.
The Nyamasheke mayor overruled the decision and released the victim, but after it been reported in the media. Similar cases of officials punishing residents who called the media, have happened in Bugesera district, and many other areas.
For Kajangana Jean Aimé, Director of the Monitoring of Interdictions and Incompatibilities of Senior Officials in the Office of the Ombudsman, also charged with overseeing how the Access to Information law is implemented, such officials who target ordinary people just because they spoke to media, cannot be ignored.
“The media is seen with suspicion among officials who believe it deliberately misrepresents information given to them, which makes the officials to hold back on releasing information to media,” he said.
Project compiled by Yves Nkuyemuruge, Phoibe Mukandayisenga, Celestin Ndereyehe
You can also find us on Signal