Rwandan journalist Dieudonné Niyonsenga, who also goes by the name Hassan Cyuma, was arrested on April 15, 2020, alongside driver Fidèle Komezusenge. As of late 2020 they remained in pretrial detention on charges that include impersonation and hindering the implementation of government work.
Niyonsenga owns and reports for Ishema TV, a YouTube channel that covers a wide range of topics including local politics, culture, and human rights.
On April 15, the Rwanda Investigation Bureau, which carries out criminal investigations, tweeted that its officers arrested Niyonsenga and Komezusenge 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 a press card for Komezusenge.
Two people who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal, said that Niyonsenga and Komezusenge were arrested in Gasabo, a district in the capital Kigali, while they were driving to a reporting assignment. One said that Niyonsenga had a camera with him.
Prosecutors charged Niyonsenga and Komezusenge with forgery, impersonation, and hindering the implementation of government-ordered work, one of the people familiar with the case said.
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.
The charge of forgery, which carries a prison term of up to seven years under Rwanda’s 2018 criminal code, is connected to the media identification card that police said falsely labeled Komezusenge as a journalist, according one of the people familiar with the case who spoke to CPJ and a report from the Kenyan-based regional newspaper TheEastAfrican..
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 said that these were company identification cards, printed by Ishema TV, and not imitations of government-issued documents.
The people said the charge of hindering public works is connected to the allegations that Komezusenge and Niyonsenga breached COVID-19 restrictions.
Impersonating a professional carries a prison term of up to six months, and hindering the implementation of government work carries a prison term of up to three years under the country’s criminal code.
At the time of Komezusenge and Niyosenga’s arrest, the government of Rwanda had put in place movement restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19, which 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. On April 13, the commission issued a statement saying that individuals running YouTube channels did not qualify as journalists, and were not allowed to conduct interviews with the public during the country’s coronavirus lockdown.
During a May 11 hearing at the intermediate court in Gasabo, Niyonsenga and Komuzusenge were denied bail and ordered to be detained for 30 days, according to people familiar with the case who spoke to CPJ, and The EastAfrican report. Rwanda’s criminal procedure code allows the courts to order provisional detention of defendants, pending trial, for renewable 30-day periods of up to one year.
As of late 2020 they remained in pretrial detention at Nyarugenge prison in Kigali with a trial date set for December 10, 2020, according to documents reviewed by CPJ and four people familiar with the case who spoke to CPJ anonymously, citing fear for their safety.
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 email, the commission told CPJ that it was not following Niyonsenga’s case and could only provide assistance to accredited journalists.
CPJ called Ishema TV at the phone number provided on its YouTube page in late 2020, but no one answered.
In a May 18 phone interview with CPJ, 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. Busingye did not respond to subsequent September and November 2020 emails requesting comment, or a November 2020 WhatsApp message.
Over messaging app, Faustin Nkusi, the spokesperson for the National Public Prosecution Authority, told CPJ that the alleged crimes for which the YouTubers are being investigated have nothing to do with “their right to report or their profession.”
In a phone call in November 2020, Prosecutor General Aimable Havugiyaremye said that his office’s spokesperson, Faustin Nkusi, would respond to queries. Despite acknowledging receipt of WhatsApp messages from CPJ in September and November 2020, Nkusi did not provide comment on Niyonsenga’s case.
Judiciary spokesperson Harrison Mutabazi did not respond to CPJ’s emailed requests for comment in October and November 2020.