Dieudonné Niyonsenga

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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. He is serving a seven-year prison sentence. 

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.

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. 

Niyonsenga and Komezusenge were arrested in Gasabo, a district of Kigali, while en route to a reporting assignment to Kabeza, another district in the capital, according to a person familiar with their case who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity citing fear of reprisal, and court documents reviewed by CPJ. 

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, according to CPJ’s review of the page.

Prosecutors charged Niyonsenga and Komezusenge with forgery, impersonation, hindering the implementation of government-ordered work, and also charged Niyonsenga with humiliating officials on duty, the person familiar with the case said.

The humiliation charge, stemming from a section of the penal code that was repealed in 2019, was later dropped during court proceedings, according to those court documents and the person who spoke with CPJ. 

The charge of hindering public works was connected to allegations that Komezusenge and Niyonsenga breached COVID-19 movement restrictions, according to the court documents. Rwanda’s pandemic restrictions at the time included a ban on “unnecessary movements and visits outside the home,” according to tweets by the office of the prime minister. Guidelines issued by the Rwanda Media Commission, an ostensibly 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. 

During their trial, prosecutors alleged that Niyonsenga had forged press cards for himself and Komezusenge, saying that only the Rwanda Media Commission could issue such cards, according to the court documents and the person who spoke with CPJ. The crime of forgery carries a prison term of up to seven years under Rwanda’s 2018 criminal code.

Prosecutors also alleged that because he did not have an accreditation from the RMC, Niyonsenga was impersonating a journalist, according to the person who spoke to CPJ and the court documents. Prosecutors also accused Komezusenge of impersonation, saying he did not have journalistic qualifications or RMC accreditation, according to the court documents.

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. 

Niyonsenga and Komezusenge remained detained for the duration of their trial, according to media reports. 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.

In the ruling, which CPJ reviewed, the judge cited Niyonsenga’s work on Ishema TV as evidence of their journalism, found that there was a lack of clarity on whether the law allowed media owners to issue press cards to their own employees, and ruled that breaching COVID-19 restrictions ought not be considered hindering ordered government work.

However, prosecutors appealed Niyonsenga’s acquittal, and on November 11, 2021, the High Court in Kigali convicted him 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 the person familiar with the case. 

Niyonsenga was also convicted of humiliating authorities, stemming from a claim that he had insulted the security personnel who arrested him. Rwanda’s Supreme Court in 2019 repealed sections of the penal code that penalize humiliating public officials, after finding them unconstitutional, according to media reports.

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, the longest possible term among the charges against him, according to media reports. Shortly after the ruling, police detained Niyonsenga from his home in Kigali, according to the journalist’s Twitter posts and media reports.

Niyonsenga planned to appeal the ruling, according to reports

In a tweet on November 16, the Rwandan public prosecutor’s office also said that it had appealed the conviction to “correct an error” relating to the fact that the journalist had been convicted under a repealed law. In that statement, the office said it had asked the court to maintain Niyonsenga’s prison sentence and his convictions on the other charges.

In late 2021 Niyonsenga remained detained at Nyarugenge Prison in Kigali, according to the person familiar with the case.

In a May 18, 2020, email to CPJ, a representative of the secretariat of the media commission said that Niyonsenga and Komuzusenge “were arrested like any other citizens” for allegedly violating lockdown guidelines. The commission told CPJ that it had not registered Ishema TV or accredited any of its staff. In a November 2020 email, the commission told CPJ that it was not following Niyonsenga’s case and could only assist accredited journalists. The Commission did not respond to CPJ’s emailed request for comment in late 2021.

In a May 18, 2020, phone interview with CPJ, then Rwandan Justice Minister Johnston Busingye said that the state would never detain or prosecute anyone in connection to their journalism, and referred CPJ to the office of the prosecutor general for further comment. 

Over messaging app in late 2020, Faustin Nkusi, the spokesperson for the National Public Prosecution Authority, told CPJ that the alleged crimes for which Niyonsenga and Komezusenge were being investigated had nothing to do with “their right to report or their profession.” Nkusi did not respond to CPJ’s requests for comment sent via messaging app in late 2021. 

In late 2021, CPJ again emailed the National Public Prosecution Authority, but did not receive any response. CPJ also emailed the Ministry of Justice and judiciary spokesperson Harrison Mutabazi for comment, but did not receive any responses.