Rwandan authorities arrested journalist Dieudonné Niyonsenga, who also goes by the name Hassan Cyuma, in 2020, and accused him of impersonating a journalist and forging a press card. He was acquitted in March 2021, but authorities appealed that ruling, and he was retried and convicted in November 2021. He was serving a seven-year prison sentence as of December 1, 2022.
Niyonsenga owns and reports for Ishema TV, a YouTube channel that critically covers a wide range of topics, including local politics, culture, and human rights. Ishema TV is no longer available online as of early November 2022.
On April 15, 2020, the Rwanda Investigation Bureau, which carries out criminal investigations, tweeted that its officers arrested Niyonsenga and Fidele Komezusenge, a driver with Ishema TV, for allegedly breaching COVID-19 lockdown orders. In its tweets, the bureau alleged that Niyonsenga resisted orders to go home, arguing that he was a journalist and allowed to move during the lockdown, and the bureau accused Niyonsenga of forging press cards.
Prosecutors charged Niyonsenga and Komezusenge with forgery of press cards, impersonating journalists, hindering the implementation of government-ordered work by breaching COVID-19 movement restrictions, and also charged Niyonsenga with humiliating officials on duty, according to court documents reviewed by CPJ. The humiliation charge, stemming from a section of the penal code that was repealed in 2019, was later dropped during court proceedings, according to those court documents and a person familiar with their case who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity, citing safety concerns.
During their trial, prosecutors alleged that Niyonsenga had forged press cards for himself and Komezusenge, saying that only the Rwanda Media Commission (RMC), a statutory regulator, could issue such cards, according to the court documents and the person who spoke with CPJ. Prosecutors also alleged that because he did not have an accreditation from the RMC and the proper journalistic qualifications, Niyonsenga was impersonating a journalist, according to these same sources.
Both Niyonsenga and Komezusenge pled not guilty to the charges, according to those documents, which said their defense argued that Rwandan law allowed citizens to establish websites to disseminate information; that Ishema TV was properly registered; that Niyonsenga had a right to issue company ID cards; and that accreditation by the RMC did not grant one journalistic status.
On March 12, 2021, the Gasabo Intermediate Court in Kigali acquitted them both, and they were freed on March 13, according to Niyonsenga’s lawyer, who spoke to CPJ at the time.
However, prosecutors appealed the acquittal, and on November 11, 2021, the High Court in Kigali convicted Niyonsenga of forgery and usurping titles with the intention to mislead the public, as prosecutors again alleged that he had counterfeited press cards and falsely claimed to be a journalist, according to media reports and court documents issued by CPJ. In the judgment CPJ reviewed, the court argued that Niyonsenga had a right to publish news on the internet but no right to print press cards or to call himself a journalist.
Niyonsenga was also convicted of the repealed offense of humiliating authorities, stemming from a claim that he had insulted the security personnel who arrested him. The National Public Prosecution Authority later tweeted in November 2021 that Niyonsenga’s conviction on this charge had been an error; and said it had appealed to the courts to set aside this specific charge.
The court fined Niyonsenga 5 million Rwandan francs (US$4,900) and sentenced him to seven years in prison, the maximum prison term for forgery
, according to a copy of the judgment reviewed by CPJ and media reports. Shortly after the ruling, police detained Niyonsenga from his home in Kigali, according to the journalist’s Twitter posts and media reports.
In November 2021, shortly after Niyonsenga was taken into custody after his conviction, the privately owned news website The Chronicles reported allegations that Niyonsenga was being forced to delete his YouTube Channel, adding in a February 18, 2022 tweet, that Ishema TV seemed to no longer be available on YouTube.
In March 2022, Human Rights Watch confirmed that Ishema TV was no longer online, adding that it was unclear if it was a voluntary removal, and CPJ’s review of the channel in early April 2022 also found that Ishema TV was no longer available. As of October 2022, Ishema TV remained offline, though a snapshot of its landing page was still available on the Internet Archive.
Niyonsenga challenged his conviction in court and requested release pending decision on the appeal, according to January and March 2022 media reports and court documents reviewed by CPJ. He remained detained for the duration of the appeal trial, and on March 18, 2022, the Court of Appeal, based in the capital Kigali, affirmed his conviction on the charges of forgery and impersonation but overturned his conviction on the charge of humiliating authorities, according to media reports and a copy of the judgment reviewed by CPJ. The court sustained Niyonsenga’s seven-year prison sentence and the fine of 5 million francs, according to those court documents.
On November 25, 2021, authorities detained Niyonsenga’s father, Primien Rukebesha, and held him for three days after he tried to visit the journalist at Nyarugenge Prison, according to a report by The Chronicles and the person familiar with the case who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity.
Niyonsenga was serving his prison term in Nyarugenge Prison, in the capital Kigali, as of early November 2022, according to a person familiar with his case who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity, citing safety concerns.
During a court appearance in May 2022, Aimable Karasira, a commentator also detained in Nyarugenge, said he was being tortured by officials through sleep deprivation and beatings, according to several media reports and a report by Human Rights Watch. Karasira said that Niyonsenga was also suffering similar treatment, according to the Human rights Watch report. In a June 2022 report, the YouTube news and commentary channel Pax TV-Ireme News interviewed Niyonsenga’s sister, Mujawabera Odette, and another person who visited him in prison in May and June, and both said that the journalist reported being beaten by prison officers on his back and head and that he had wounds on his chest and behind one of his ears. This report also said that Niyonsenga was not receiving medical attention for his injuries.
In its November 2022 email responding to CPJ’s queries about Niyonsenga and other detained journalists, Rwanda’s Ministry of Justice said that none of the journalists had been charged or convicted of “offenses related to their purported journalistic activities” and that their cases “were conducted in full accordance” with Rwandan law.
The ministry added that Niyonsenga had not asked the court to address his ill treatment and that they could not comment further as the matter was before the courts.
CPJ’s October and November 2022 emails to Rwanda’s National Public Prosecution Authority did not receive any replies. CPJ’s contacted National Public Prosecution Authority spokesperson Faustin Nkusi in November 2022 via messaging app, but did not receive a response. Rwanda’s Correctional Service acknowledged receipt of an email from CPJ in November 2022, but did not answer queries or provide comment.