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Digital Rights Advocates: Interview with Rwandan lawyer Louis Gitinywa

Digital Rights Advocates: Interview with Rwandan lawyer Louis Gitinywa

Welcome to the Digital Rights Advocates Blog Series, where we hear from lawyers litigating digital rights in sub-Saharan Africa.

Digital rights have become indispensable for people around the world to exercise and enjoy their fundamental rights. Independent media is increasingly moving online – from established newspapers and television channels to bloggers and human rights activists with large social media followings.

However, this has been accompanied by an increase in states and other actors seeking to encroach on these rights. In the midst of a global pandemic, it is more important than ever that journalists and bloggers are able to carry out their work unhindered. As part of the Digital Rights Advocates Project, Media Defence works with lawyers litigating digital rights cases in sub-Saharan Africa to promote and protect freedom of expression online.

For this blog, we spoke with Louis Gitinywa, a Rwandan advocate and senior partner at Kigali Attorneys Chamber, a Rwandan law firm based in Kigali. Louis is also a member of the East African Law Society (EALS) as well as an associate lecturer at Rwanda Institute of Legal Practice and Development. His legal practice focuses on issues related to constitutional law, media law, fintech, tech law and digital rights. Louis has more than eight years’ experience as a lawyer and previously served as a public prosecutor, setting up Kigali Attorneys Chamber with a colleague in 2016.

What motivates you as a lawyer and what do you find most interesting about your work?

I always had a passion for the law and I think what makes legal practice interesting is the human aspect because as an advocate, every day you interact with people coming from different social and cultural backgrounds and this requires a lot of humility. It means putting enough time [in] to listen and to understand your different counterparts, because at the end of the day there’s no monopoly of knowledge. You can always learn from others.

Why is freedom of expression online important to you?

Personally, I think freedom of expression is one of the most fundamental human rights, [and] is one of the inalienable rights to human beings. Today with the rise of Internet-enabled mobile phone and smartphones this has dramatically changed the media landscape, it gives us access to diverse sources of independent and critical sources of information rather than relying on the domestic media which most of time only reflect the official narrative line.

The Internet has become the greatest medium for global access to information but also a formidable tool for many to raise their views and to exercise their free speech, to organise, mobilise and to document protests in real time, especially given the sub-Saharan context where many governments – including Rwanda – are reluctant to tolerate criticism and public dissent. Therefore protecting freedom of expression online is critical more than ever.

What’s it like to be a journalist or blogger in Rwanda?

Despite some progress achieved in reforming the media sector with a new media legislation (law no 02/2013 of 08/02/2013) and its change of the statuary regulation to self-regulation, Rwanda still has a poor track record in terms of freedom of media or a safe environment for journalists to operate.

I also think you need to understand this given the country’s history and political context where the media was very politicised and in fact some journalists and media houses (here I mean the infamous Newspaper Kangura or the RTLM) were implicated in the genocide against the Tutsi.

Even today in Rwanda’s post-genocide context, the media is still politicised, so there is a strong practice of self-censorship among Rwandan journalists and bloggers who mostly toe to the government official narrative line. Most journalists try as much as possible to avoid covering sensitive topics that can be construed as critical to the government for fear of reprisals.

Furthermore, censorship is still the practice in the country, where some authorities regularly order editors of independent online news website to remove critical stories or face blocking.

What’s the environment for digital rights and freedom of expression in Rwanda?

The environment for digital rights and freedom of expression online is generally characterised by a climate of fear and self-censorship, mostly due to the law on genocide ideology and divisionism (which is a kind of hate speech law and it has been enacted since 2008). The practice contradicts the primary function of the law itself. Through the broad and sweeping nature of the law (despite several amendments), it has often been misused to criminalise public criticism or shut down any legitimate public dissent. This law has greatly undermined the ability of Rwandan journalists and bloggers to inform the general public due to the climate of self-censorship it has created, as most journalists see the threat of imprisonment as a key constraint on their work.

The law governing information and communication technologies empowers the minister in charge of information technology to order the Rwandan Utilities Regulatory Authority to issue orders to suspend or restrict any Internet service provider’s (ISP) communications network or services, on vague and broad grounds of national security (practically, with this provision, the minister has the ability to order a national Internet shutdown). State-affiliated regulatory agencies and other security services can use their authority to order particular courses of action, for example, restricting access to particular online news platforms or blocking websites and possibly an Internet shutdown.

Many other provisions contained in the revised penal code – such as provisions on defamationhave penalties of between five and seven years’ imprisonment for defamation against the President of the Republic, including through publication of cartoons.

Could you tell us about the Litigation Surgery you attended with Media Defence?

Honestly, I am quite lucky to have participated at three Media Defence surgeries here in East Africa. I must confess that these surgeries not only build my capacity in how to handle digital rights litigation or strategic litigation, but also have also boosted my ability to document the situation of digital rights and freedom of expression online in my home country and across the region through research papers and articles.

Anything else you would like to add?

My journey with Media Defence has shaped me in so many ways: empowering me by understanding the changing nature of legal practice and for example the infusion of technology into law, as well as immersive learning from others as I am always looking for opportunities to collaborate and my colleagues are really inspiring.

If you are a journalist or blogger targeted for their work or a lawyer taking on one of these cases, please click here to find out how Media Defence can support you in your work.

For more information on the Digital Rights Advocates Project, please contact hannah.stoate@mediadefence.org.

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