Nairobi, May 21, 2020 — Rwandan authorities should unconditionally release journalist Dieudonné Niyonsenga and media worker Fidèle Komezusenge, and ensure the members of press can work without interference during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Authorities arrested Niyonsenga, who runs the YouTube news channel Ishema TV, and Komezusenge, a driver with the channel, on April 15, according to tweets from the Rwanda Investigation Bureau, which handles criminal investigations.
The bureau said the two were arrested for violating the country’s COVID-19 lockdown, alleging that Niyonsenga, who also goes by the name Hassan Cyuma, resisted orders to go back home, saying that as a journalist he was allowed to move freely during the lockdown. The bureau also accused Niyonsenga of giving Komezusenge a card falsely identifying him as a journalist so that he could work during the lockdown.
Three people familiar with the case, who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal, said that Niyonsenga and Komezusenge were going to report at the time of their arrest. One said that Niyonsenga had a camera with him at the time.
In the weeks before the arrests, Ishema TV’s YouTube Channel posted reports including an interview with a woman in poverty appealing for help, a discussion on the firing of a state minister, and two reports on alleged abuses by security personnel.
CPJ has not seen a copy of the charges filed against Niyonsenga and Komezusenge, and National Public Prosecution Authority spokesperson Faustin Nkusi did not respond to questions about those charges during an exchange of WhatsApp messages with CPJ yesterday.
Three other people familiar with the case, who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity citing security concerns, said the charges against the two include forgery and claiming to be journalists.
Under Rwandan law, forgery is punishable with jail terms of up to seven years and fines of up to five million Rwandan francs ($5,000), and falsely claiming to be a member of a legally regulated profession carries a prison term of up to six months and fines of up to one million Rwandan francs ($1,000).
“Journalists and media workers need to do their jobs without interference if the public is to stay informed and authorities are to be held accountable during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said CPJ’s sub-Saharan Africa representative, Muthoki Mumo. “Authorities in Rwanda should release Dieudonné Niyonsenga and Fidèle Komezusenge, drop any charges against them, and guarantee that the press can work freely during the pandemic.”
On March 21, Rwanda implemented COVID-19 response measures that included banning all “unnecessary movement,” with the exception of essential services, which did not explicitly exempt journalists, according to government announcements on Twitter.
Guidelines issued by the Rwanda Media Commission, a self-regulatory body, and shared with CPJ, advised journalists to work from home when possible or carry press cards if they go out to the field.
On April 13, the commission issued a statement saying that individuals running personal YouTube channels did not qualify as journalists, and were not allowed to conduct interviews with the public during the country’s coronavirus lockdown.
In a May 18 email to CPJ, a representative of the secretariat of the media commission said that Niyonsenga and Komuzusenge “were arrested like any other citizens for violating” stay home guidelines. The commission told CPJ that it had not registered Ishema TV or accredited any of its staff.
Authorities allege that, because Niyonsenga and Ishema TV are not registered with the Rwanda Media Commission, he and Komezusenge were impersonating journalists, and Komezusenge’s identification card labeling him as a journalist constituted forgery, according to the three people familiar with the charges who spoke to CPJ.
In its tweets, the Rwanda Investigation Bureau shared images of two identification cards, identifying both Komezusenge and Niyonsenga as “senior reporter/journalist” with Ishema TV. The people who spoke to CPJ about the charges said that these were company identification cards, printed by Ishema TV, and not government-issued documents.
On May 11, a court in Kigali denied Niyonsenga and Komezusenge bail and remanded them to prison for 30 days, according to those three people and media reports.
In a May 18 phone call, Rwandan justice minister Johnston Busingye said that the state would never detain or prosecute anyone in connection to their journalism work and referred CPJ to the office of the prosecutor general for further comment on the case.
In a text sent via messaging app, Faustin Nkusi, the spokesperson for the National Public Prosecution Authority, told CPJ that that the alleged crimes for which the YouTubers are being investigated have nothing to do with “their right to report or their profession.” He did not provide details on which specific laws they are accused of contravening.