Rwandan authorities have threatened, arrested, or prosecuted at least eight people reporting or commenting on current affairs on YouTube over the past year, Human Rights Watch said.
A poet who published his poems on YouTube has been missing since February 7, 2021.
“Rwanda’s track record of intolerance and abusive reprisals against critics raises serious questions regarding the safety of a new generation of bloggers and commentators,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Commonwealth should not turn a blind eye to the repression of fundamental democratic guarantees and should press Rwandan authorities to introduce much-needed reforms to protect free speech.”
In February and March, Human Rights Watch interviewed seven Rwandan commentators, bloggers, and journalists, and nine other witnesses, family members, or sources with direct knowledge of the cases.
YouTube has emerged as an increasingly contested space for free speech in Rwanda. In recent years, frustrated by the absence of critical debate in the media, some Rwandan bloggers and commentators have taken to the platform to publish videos on sensitive issues and discuss current – and sometimes controversial – matters. Such matters include evictions from poor neighborhoods of the capital Kigali and the strict lockdowns imposed and shutdown of schools from March to November 2020 in response to Covid-19.
On February 9, 2021, Innocent Bahati, a 31-year-old singer and poet, was reported missing to the Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB), two days after he was last seen in Nyanza, Southern Province. His poems, which he recites in videos posted on YouTube, have focused on social issues such as growing poverty or criticism of the lockdown and its impact. Two people who saw him before he disappeared told Human Rights Watch that he had traveled to Nyanza district on February 7 to research material for a new poem. The RIB spokesperson told the media an investigation into his whereabouts was ongoing.
In April 2020, police arrested four bloggers and one driver working with Rwandan YouTube channels that reported on the impact of the Covid-19 guidelines on vulnerable populations. The arrests appeared retaliatory, and charges were brought against three of them. Dieudonné Niyonsenga, known as “Cyuma Hassan,” the owner of Ishema TV, and his driver Fidèle Komezusenge were accused of forgery, impersonating journalists, and hindering public works but both were acquitted on March 12, 2021. Théoneste Nsengimana, the owner of Umubavu TV, was held in pretrial detention on accusations of fraud but released in May 2020 for lack of evidence.
While it is positive that none of the cases have resulted in convictions, the threat and fear of prosecution for reporting on sensitive issues has a persistent chilling effect. Rwanda’s narrow definition of journalists as “a person who possesses basic journalism skills and who exercises journalism as his/her first profession” runs counter to international standards and has allowed the state to prosecute bloggers doing important public interest reporting on the government’s response to Covid-19, Human Rights Watch said.
Other bloggers detained or arrested in the last year include Yvonne Idamange, an online commentator who has also discussed growing poverty in Rwanda and criticized the lockdown; Agnès Uwimana Nkusi, editor of Umarabyo news site and YouTube channel, who was detained for several hours after recording one of Idamange’s pretrial hearings; and Valentin Muhirwa and David Byiringiro, bloggers with Afrimax TV who distributed food after people they interviewed said they were going hungry, and were released 12 days later.
Commentators such as Idamange and Aimable Karasira, a former professor and the owner of a YouTube channel, who used their videos to discuss the 1994 genocide or crimes committed by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in its aftermath, have also faced threats and accusations of denying or minimizing the genocide.
In recent years, several people who have been victims of abusive detentions or prosecutions told Human Rights Watch that during interrogations or in pretrial detention, they were beaten and told to confess to crimes they had not committed. Some also said officials working in the president’s office threatened them and told them not to speak about the abuse they have faced.
Regulation, Threats, Prosecutions
On May 8, 2019, President Kagame gave a chilling warning to those using online platforms: “Those that you hear speak on the internet, whether they are in America, in South Africa, or in France, they think they are far. They are far, but they are close to the fire. The day they get closer, the fire will burn them.”
Domestic Law Hostile to Free Speech
Rwandan law allows for overly broad and vague limitations on free speech, which violate the right to freedom of expression and media freedom protections afforded by international law.
Rwanda’s 2018 Penal Code contains several provisions that can enable abusive prosecutions and have fostered a culture of self-censorship. Although the Supreme Court ruled in April 2019 to repeal articles that criminalized “public defamation of religious rituals” and the “humiliation” of authorities and public servants, several provisions remain that place disproportionate and unwarranted sanctions on speech deemed defamatory or false. For example, article 236 criminalizes “insults or defamation against the president,” punishable by up to seven years in prison and fines of up to 7 million Rwandan Francs ($7,050).