Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday Rwandan authorities have threatened, arrested, or prosecuted at least eight people reporting or commenting on current affairs on YouTube over the past year. A poet who published his poems on YouTube has been missing since February 7, 2021.
The rights group said as Rwanda prepares to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in June, authorities should stop harassing, immediately release, and drop all charges against YouTube commentators and bloggers facing abusive prosecutions that violate freedom of expression, adding that authorities should also open credible, independent, and transparent investigations into suspicious deaths and disappearances of critics, opposition members, civil society actors, and journalists, and prosecute those responsible.
“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. Human Rights Watch researchers also reviewed laws, trial documents, public speeches, and social media posts relating to the cases. This report is not exhaustive but focuses on recent cases that Human Rights Watch has verified. Identifying information has been withheld to protect sources from retaliation by authorities.
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.
Several sources said that Bahati was previously detained in 2017 for criticizing the decision to move the Kigali Institute of Education campus from Kigali to Rukara, Eastern Province. Given Bahati’s previous detention, his recent criticism of government policies, and the pattern of mysterious disappearances of government critics in Rwanda, his disappearance should be treated as suspicious, Human Rights Watch said.
On March 19, 2021, Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to Justice Minister Johnston Busingye to share information about the cases it has documented, including Bahati’s disappearance, and to request information on the Rwandan authorities’ steps to address violations of the right to freedom of expression. The government has not responded.
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.
According to the World Bank, the Rwandan economy is one of the most affected by the pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa due to the stringent lockdown measures, and this crisis is “dramatically increasing poverty,” particularly affecting people in urban areas, children, and women. The police has arbitrarily detained tens of thousands of people accused of violating the public health measures, without legal grounds or due process, holding them in stadiums, and the government perceives criticism of its response as particularly sensitive.
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.
During the January 2021 Universal Periodic Review of its human rights record at the United Nations, Rwanda received numerous recommendations from other countries to amend its domestic legislation to protect freedom of expression and opinion.
“In Rwanda, being consistently critical of the government almost guarantees some form of reprisal – whether arrest, harassment, or a mysterious disappearance,” Mudge said. “Threats by ruling party or government officials and fear of prosecution have created an environment that can only be described as hostile to free speech and demanding self-censorship.”