With support from UNESCO’s Global Media Defence Fund, CRNI has recruited a new network of Legal Experts around the world, both practicing lawyers and academics, these bolstering our existing roster of Regional Representative cartoonists. In a series of interviews we get to know a selection of these experts better; today’s subject is Louis Gitinywa Akohouendo, a senior partner at Kigali Attorneys Chamber LLP, Rwanda. He specialises in constitutional law, media & tech law and digital rights. Mr. Gitinywa is a member of the East African Law Society (EALS), an associate lecturer at Rwanda Institute of Legal Practice & Development and a member of Lawyers Against Poverty.
1. Our cartoonists are consistently expressing anxiety about criminalisation. In your view, are they right to be worried?
Yes indeed, I think they have the right to be genuinely worried as for the last few decades we have been observing a clear deterioration in their work environment, various attacks against the freedom of press and freedom of expression and harassment and censorship across the world, even in the countries where freedom of press and free speech are recognized and celebrated, the 2015 killings at Charlie Hebdo being the prime example. One of our best cartoonists is Gado. He lost his position at The East African (the leading regional newspaper) because the publishers at the journal found his work too critical of the political establishment.
Elsewhere in the world we can observe how “moralistic mobs” (using Chappatte’s words) and the tenets of the cancel culture have affected the conversation on social media. Today I am quite concerned to see people justifying violence against cartoonists just because they draw satirical cartoons.
2. What is the greatest impediment to freedom of expression in your location?
Here in my home country of Rwanda the greatest impediment to freedom of expression is related to both official censorship and self-censorship. The government’s repression of the media has greatly limited the diversity opinion in online media outlets, broadcasting and print media. Most of the critical online news sites produced by opposition groups based overseas, or accredited independent outlets such as the BBC Gahuza Miryango (the Kinyarwanda service of BBC World) are blocked in Rwanda. Also, the observable trend is of the authorities interfering with editorial decisions at the few remaining media outlets here in the country. According to many Rwandan journalists who have spoken anonymously, officials affiliated to the state security apparatus have tightened their control of the media by ensuring that each news organization duplicate an official editorial line. Meanwhile media outlets that are critical of the government are systematically harassed, attacked and discredited.
The second issue, self-censorship, arises because of fear of reprisals and prosecution. Internet access and social media have granted more people the opportunity to hear from independent voices, but online journalists and private bloggers avoid covering or discussing sensitive topics that can be perceived as critical of the government’s actions and policies.
3. Describe the work of your firm; in particular tell us about any efforts on behalf of minority or marginalised people.
My personal work and that of my law firm is based around defence of journalists and bloggers who are arrested, jailed, detained or prosecuted because of their work. Many have been arrested and remain behind bars, while others have fled the country. Those who remain self-censor for fear of being arrested. I also belong to the East African network of digital rights lawyers of Media Defence, providing legal aid , defence and assistance before regional courts and human rights regional jurisdictions for those persecuted in their home countries.
4. Do you consider yourself a human rights defender (HRD)? If so and you are at liberty to describe the experience, have you been the victim of harassment or threat because of your work?
Yes – I do consider myself a Human Rights Defender and I have personal experience of threats, harassment and abuse. I have written pieces criticizing poor governance and the autocratic system in Rwanda, calling for reforms and the rule of law, and been trolled by the state’s “sock puppets” and bots. In 2019 my legal practice license was suspended without any notification or due process from the Rwanda Bar Association (happily reinstated since).
5. Have you been involved in any note-worthy cases concerning cartoonists, artists or journalists?
In 2011 I have worked on the case of Ministere Public v. Agnes Uwimana Nkusi and Saidath Mukakibibi who were at that time the chief editor and editor of the bi-weekly Umurabyo, a Kinyarwanda language publication. My clients were convicted on four charges: threatening national security; defamation of the president; genocide ideology and denial; abetting divisionism in the country.
The public prosecution argued that the two journalists threatened national security by incitement. The high court convicted Uwimana Nkusi to a total of seventeen years’ imprisonment, to be served consecutively. Her colleague Mukakibibi were also sentenced to serve a jail sentence of seven years. In 2012 we lodged an appeal at the supreme court and overturned some of convictions; Uwimana Nkusi was acquitted of the charges of genocide denial and divisionism, but her conviction for defaming the president stood, she was left to serve four years. Saidath’s sentence was reduced to three years, however this case is still ongoing as we appealed to the African commission on Human and People’s Rights.
6. Have you a favourite cartoonist? If so who, and what do you admire about them?
My favourite is Masoud Kipanya, a Tanzanian cartoonist based in Dar es Salaam. What I love is the lucidity of his cartoons, the biting sarcasm and the irony with which he depicts East African society, but also his defiance before the totalitarian establishment in Tanzania and across the region.
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