Proposed communications intercept law: is our privacy adequately protected?

A few or two ago, I read a rather interesting take on the proposed communication intercept law. Written by Clive Muhenga, a correspondent for Radio Netherlands Worldwide, the article calamitously titled ‘Big Brother Kagame is watching all Rwandans’ (15th August) aimed to inform the world about the ‘draconian’ law that was just passed. I have my own issues with the law, as I shall discuss further down, but first of all, I will fact-check every one of his assertions. I’m presently on a crusade against lazy journalism and the peddling of falsehoods because I believe that we deserve better. This nation is all about accountability, and I want to hold this journalist accountable.

The Rwandan parliament recently passed a law authorising high-ranking security officials to monitor email and telephone conversations of individuals considered potential threats to the national security.’

That is UNTRUE. This law DID get passed in the Chamber of Deputies but it is currently in the Senate awaiting further deliberation as soon as the parliamentary recess ends next month. Therefore, saying that it was passed by Parliament is NOT TRUE.  Secondly, the law doesn’t authorise ‘high-ranking security officials to monitor potential threats to national security’. It authorises our security organs (police, army and intelligence services) to monitor ANYONE who they think is conducting illegal activities. As long as they have a warrant, given in writing or verbally by the Prosecutors of National Jurisdiction (there are only 15 presently), the intercepts are legal.

‘The law, which has just been passed by Parliament, also prohibits accessing banned websites or reading certain materials. Reading documents considered subversive by the government is equated with complicity with the author and carries the same sentence. “It means that if I were to call Patrick Karegeya or read his party’s communiqué, I would be punishable by law,” comments an independent journalist who wishes to remain anonymous.’

That’s probably the biggest lie I’ve seen all year. I’ve examined the 16 article-long DRAFT law in minute detail and NOWHERE are websites or reading materials even mentioned.

[The law] means that we are now at the mercy of these three big men of the police, army and intelligence, because the threat to national security is an umbrella charge than can include anything and everything,” explains a young lawyer, who also doesn’t want to reveal his name. “It’s a means of silencing us. It’s censorship, plain and simple,” says a young university student.

I don’t want to say that Mr. Muhenga is ‘inventing’ sources. All I will say is that his ‘sources’ obviously haven’t examined the law and if they’ve done so, I wonder about the intellectual capacities of the young lawyers and students our country is producing.

Communication intercepts vis-à-vis the right to privacy

Call me a cynic but I refuse to believe that people are ALL good, ALL the time. They overstep their boundaries and they make mistakes. That is why there are mechanisms that ensure accountability, which brings me to this law. Before I go any further, I must state that I DON’T think that my right to privacy is being violated by the Government, either today or in the future.

I’m uncomfortable with the fact that, when it comes to tapping my phone calls and emails, all police needs to do is simply ask a prosecutor.  This despite the fact that my correspondences and communications are constitutionally protected (Article 22). While this system (of prosecutors handing out warrants) occurs in other countries, like Belgium for example, I must ask. As a citizen, how do I know that my rights are not being needlessly trampled? According to Article 44 of the Constitution, members of the judiciary are the “guardians of rights and freedoms of the public”.

In my humble opinion, we would be better served if permission to tap our communication came from judges. Our system of government dictates a separation (and therefore a balance) of powers, holding each other accountable. How can we say that this is happening when, in this case, the security organs (which fall under the Ministries of Defence and Internal Security) obtain warrants from National Prosecutors (who fall under the authority of the Ministry of Justice)? What is the chance that that the latter institution refuses authorization due to a lack of probable cause?

I urge the Senate to examine the law and make sure that, in absence of a change in the law relating to the Code of Criminal Procedure (which in Article 70 states that a search warrant is issued by the Prosecution services), there is more oversight. Fundamental rights aren’t to be bandied about irresponsibly. No matter just how well-meaning the law is supposed to be.

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