By Jean-Pierre Afadhali*
Kigali, Rwanda. A new study on the state of access to information in Rwanda released early this week revealed information requests are being denied and delayed despite the enactment of the law promoting right to information six years ago making it difficult for the public and journalists to access information.
The study that was jointly published by Sobanukirwa, an online portal for access to information and JP Media, a digital communications agency, looks at the state of access to information under the period between 2013 and 2020 with focus on the implementation of the law relating to access to Information that was enacted and gazetted in 2013. At the time Rwanda joined several other African countries that passed the law enabling journalists and citizens to easily access information held by governments and some private bodies.
The study that employed qualitative approach that include policy and legal analysis, interviews with selected respondents, and several sources of data available online and offline documented the country’s challenges and achievements in access to information.
The report titled “The state of Access to Information in Rwanda: Mapping the trends in right to information” found that despite having a progressive law that was welcomed by the media fraternity, civil society and the country’s development partners, access to information remains a big challenge-especially for journalists.
Some of the key highlighted trends in the new report includes rising information denial by public agencies, delayed responses and unanswered requests that frustrate citizens who seek information for various purposes.
According to the study, data from an online portal dedicated to information requests, shows that 340 FOI requests have been submitted as of 13//7/2020. Users of the online portal include various citizens requesting information. Data reveals that only 36 requests have been successful, meaning that users have got information that they requested.
The press was expected to be one of the major beneficiaries of the law relating to access to information, but journalists are the most affected by non-compliance of institutions. “Access to information remains a challenge, especially among freelancer journalists, partly due to misunderstanding amongst some leaders and institution managers that every journalist should belong to a media house,” noted the study.
According to the new study’s findings, there is a tendency among public and private institutions to have preferential treatment by providing information to big local media houses and the international media.
The report mentions one journalist who sent his inquiry five times without receiving any response. Furthermore, more than 43 percent of journalists said that their request for information have been rejected. This suggests a worrying trend as several cases of information denials have been reported over the past years.
Meanwhile, the study has documented what appears to be a culture of secrecy among public institutions that hide what they are doing, and hence hindering the right to information. “There are agencies that have gained reputation to hardly or never inform the public what they do. This is manifested in withholding information sought for by ordinary citizens, the wider public and the media. It raises questions whether the access to information serves its purpose,” noted the report
The study concludes that the access to information legislation ushered in a new era in right to information and raised hopes among the local media fraternity, regional and international organizations that promote right to know that it would bring about positive changes, promote transparency and accountability.
Despite issues highlighted, the statutory bodies have been running campaigns to educate leaders and the public on the law relating to access to information and raise awareness on right to information. The report also notes some important data and information has been released to the public.
Seven years later, challenges remain. “Notable implementation challenges include low level of understanding of the legislation among all stakeholders mainly government officials and some media practitioners as well as the public,” read part of the study’s conclusion.
Some of the recommendations include the initiation of the amendment of Article 10 of the access to Information Law to provide for sanctions to information officers who withhold information requested without legally accepted reasons.
*The writer is a journalist and researcher who contributed to the study on access to information. The work was carried out in the context of the Africa Digital Rights Fund with Support from the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA)