Nairobi, January 26, 2023—Rwandan authorities must provide a credible account of the circumstances surrounding the death of journalist John Williams Ntwali, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Thursday.
Police said that Ntwali was killed in the early morning of January 18 in Kigali, the capital, after a car hit a motorcycle taxi he was riding, according to news reports, which said that police arrested the driver of that car.
Ntwali reported critically on governance and human rights issues in Rwanda on the YouTube-based outlet Pax TV-Ireme News, which he founded, and worked as an editor for the privately owned newspaper The Chronicles. He had repeatedly received threats over his work, according to news reports.
After his death, Human Rights Watch quoted one of the journalist’s friends saying Ntwali had survived “staged accidents” in Kigali. The BBC quoted an attendee of Ntwali’s funeral saying that unidentified people had previously tried to hit a motorcycle the journalist was riding.
“Given the frequent and grave threats that John Williams Ntwali faced for his journalism, Rwanda has a duty to provide a credible explanation for his death,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal, in New York. “The current information available about his case leaves many questions unanswered. Authorities should also allow the involvement of U.N. and African Commission experts on extrajudicial killings in the investigation to bolster its credibility.”
A few days before his death, Ntwali aired a report on Pax TV-Ireme News, which has about 30,000 followers on YouTube, about the imprisonment of The Chronicles founder Christopher Kayumba, who is also a Rwandan politician. Ntwali also recently covered the plight of political prisoners in Rwanda, and allegations that detained YouTubers had faced torture behind bars.
That Human Rights Watch report said that Ntwali had told the organization in June 2022 that members of Rwanda’s intelligence agency ordered him to “change your tone” or else he would “see what happens.”
When asked for comment, Rwanda government spokesperson Yolande Makolo sent CPJ a link to a tweet saying that eight people had died in motorcycle taxi accidents in January, and that “groundless insinuations” did not help the case.
The U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Voice of America quoted a local journalist saying that he was with Ntwali on the evening of January 17, and that Ntwali seemed cautious and was worried about being surveilled.
In a separate interview with VOA, Ntwali’s widow said she last saw him on the afternoon of January 17, and he texted her that evening saying he was on a motorcycle, but was unreachable after sending that message.
When CPJ contacted the Rwandan National Police for comment via messaging app, a representative said police could not comment because the case had been referred to prosecutors. CPJ emailed the National Public Prosecution Authority for comment and sent queries via messaging app, but did not receive any replies.
CPJ also emailed the Rwandan Ministry of Interior for comment but did not receive any reply.
Authorities previously detained Ntwali for 10 days in 2007 over his coverage of events linked to Rwanda’s 1994 genocide and held him again in 2016 on rape charges, which were later dropped and which the journalist said were retaliation for his investigative work.