Rwandan authorities arrested journalist Dieudonné Niyonsenga in 2020, and initially accused him of breaching COVID-19 lockdown orders. He was later charged with impersonating a journalist and forging a press card. Niyonsenga was acquitted in March 2021, but authorities appealed that ruling, and he was retried, convicted, and jailed for seven years in November 2021. CPJ is aware of reports that Niyonsenga has been beaten in prison.
Niyonsenga, who also goes by the name Cyuma Hassan, owned and reported for Ishema TV, a YouTube channel that covered a range of topics, including local politics and human rights. The channel was taken offline in 2022.
On April 15, 2020, officers with the Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) arrested Niyonsenga and Fidele Komezusenge, a driver with Ishema TV, in the capital, Kigali, for allegedly breaching COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, the national law enforcement agency posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Prosecutors charged Niyonsenga and Komezusenge with forgery of press cards, impersonating journalists, and hindering the implementation of government-ordered work by breaching COVID-19 restrictions, according to court documents reviewed by CPJ.
Niyonsenga was also initially charged with humiliating the officials who arrested him, a crime that was repealed in 2019, according to those documents and a person familiar with the case, who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity, citing safety concerns.
Prosecutors said that Niyonsenga had forged press cards for himself and Komezusenge, which could only be issued by the regulatory Rwanda Media Commission (RMC), those sources said, and that without media accreditation or journalistic qualifications, the two men were impersonating journalists.
Niyonsenga and Komezusenge pleaded not guilty. Their defense argued that Rwandan law allowed citizens to establish websites to disseminate information, Ishema TV was properly registered, Niyonsenga had a right to issue company ID cards, and RMC accreditation did not grant one journalistic status, the documents said.
On March 12, 2021, both defendants were acquitted and were freed the next day, CPJ reported.
Prosecutors appealed, and on November 11, 2021, the High Court in Kigali convicted Niyonsenga of forgery, impersonating a journalist, and “obstructing the implementation of government-ordered works and humiliating the leadership of the country and public service officers and those in charge of security,” according to media reports and court documents reviewed by CPJ.
The court ruled that Niyonsenga had a right to publish news online but not to print press cards or call himself a journalist and sentenced him to seven years in prison with a fine of 5 million Rwandan francs (US$4,900), those sources said.
Niyonsenga was also convicted of humiliating public service officials but the National Public Prosecution Authority posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, on November 16 that this had been an error and it had appealed to the courts to set aside this charge. In the appeal, prosecutors also argued that the High Court had erred by combining the crimes of obstruction and of humiliating authorities in its conviction of Niyonsenga, according to court documents reviewed by CPJ.
On March 18, 2022, an appeal court upheld Niyonsenga’s conviction on forgery and impersonation, but overturned the conviction on the charge of humiliating authorities, according to media reports and a copy of the judgment reviewed by CPJ. The appeal court made no specific ruling on the obstruction conviction.
On November 25, 2021, authorities detained Niyonsenga’s father, Primien Rukebesha, for three days when he tried to bring clothing and a bedcover to his son in Kigali’s Nyarugenge Prison, according to The Chronicles and the person familiar with the case who spoke to CPJ.
In June 2022, the YouTube channel Pax TV-Ireme News interviewed Niyonsenga’s sister, Mujawabera Odette, and another person who visited him in prison in May and June, who both said that the journalist reported being beaten by prison officers on his back and head, that he had wounds on his chest and behind one of his ears, and that he had not received medical attention for these injuries. Human Rights Watch also received reports of similar allegations.
In a November 2022 email to CPJ, the Ministry of Justice said that the cases against Niyonsenga and other detained journalists in Rwanda were “conducted in full accordance” with the law and that none of their “offenses related to their purported journalistic activities.” The ministry said Niyonsenga had not sought remedy from the courts for his alleged ill-treatment.
As of late 2023, the person familiar with the case told CPJ that Niyonsenga was waiting for Rwanda’s Supreme Court to set a date for a final appeal.