Digital Rights Advocates: Interview with Tonny Kirabira
Tonny Kirabira is a Ugandan lawyer and researcher who attended Media Defence’s 2018 East Africa Litigation Surgery as part of our Digital Rights Advocates Project. This project is funded by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the US State Department and aims to build the capacity of lawyers in Sub-Saharan Africa to litigate digital rights cases. This takes place through training, networking events, peer-to-peer learning and grants. We were lucky enough to have Tonny pay us a visit at our London office for a quick chat about the training he attended and what he’s been up to since.
Good morning Tonny! How are you today?
I’m doing ok, just excited to be here.
It’s great to have you here. What brings you to London?
I have an appointment so that’s why I came to London, but also I thought the other thing I should do while I’m here is check out Media Defence.
We’re very happy you came! So you’re currently studying in Portsmouth right?
Yeah. I just started my PhD actually, I’m in my first year. It’s focused on international criminal justice, mostly on the case of the Rohingya victims in Myanmar. I took an interest in that subject during my masters programme so it’s a continuation of that work. I’m researching about whether international criminal law is a viable option for Rohingya people. If not, what is the most appropriate remedy for their situation?
Wow, that is really interesting. Can we recap on your experience with Media Defence?
My journey with Media Defence started in 2015, when I was working at Vision Group - Uganda’s largest media organisation. I was doing a bit of litigation so I applied for Media Defence’s East Africa Litigation Surgery and met colleagues from Kenya, Tanzania etc. I got good materials and strategies for my work. I was following Media Defence’s cases and research and I still do.
How important was the training for you and why?
The training introduced me to defending journalists beyond the courts I was used to. Knowing that I was able to advocate for them regionally and internationally gave me confidence, which I didn’t have a lot of before because I was mostly working by myself and not many people are interested in these kinds of cases (especially as journalists don’t have the money to hire lawyers). Now I know there are colleagues I can work with, for example the Human Rights Network for Journalists in Uganda. They’ve helped with some of my cases and research. Having confidence meant I was motivated to work more and I was actually twice nominated for a Human Rights Defender Award in 2016 and 2017.
People in my office couldn’t believe it! But I was motivated to work on these cases because of Media Defence. It’s more than just looking at this or that court, there’s a bigger strategy to a case, and I used those strategies. I also used a lot of resources from Media Defence because of the cooperative perspective.
That’s great. Do you think there’s still room for improvement in terms of East African lawyers accessing regional courts?
Absolutely. There’s a big need for that, especially because we have good precedents for litigating human rights in the East Africa Court of Justice. There’s also a need for more education. Not just for lawyers like me who already have good information, but the younger lawyers, even the ones who have not yet graduated. Even workshops for the judges would be good, because everyone has a different legal background.
So what kind of work would you like to see Media Defence to do next in East Africa?
Like I said, I think training is important. I also think it would be good if you worked with registered training institutions. For example, I went to the Uganda Christian University, and they partnered with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to do some human rights courses. The law students there are actually required to work on some of these cases and I think it would be good if you did something like that. During education you have a bigger impact, because when those students start to work, they’ll already be thinking about human rights because they studied it quite early.
So would you recommend our training to other lawyers in your region?
Yes definitely. I have done in the past and I would still recommend the training.
Access our free training manuals on digital rights and freedom of expression litigation here.