On January 19, 2023, Rwandan police informed John Williams Ntwali’s family that the journalist had died in a traffic accident, according to media reports. Police said that Ntwali had died after a vehicle hit a motorcycle that he was riding as a passenger at 2:50 a.m. on January 18.
Ntwali, editor of the privately owned The Chronicles newspaper and founder of the YouTube-based Pax TV-Ireme News, reported critically on governance and human rights in Rwanda, and frequently faced threats in connection to this journalistic 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. That report said that in June 2022 Ntwali had told the organization that members of Rwanda’s intelligence agency ordered him to “change your tone” or else he would “see what happens.”
The BBC quoted an attendee of Ntwali’s funeral saying that unidentified people had previously tried to hit a motorcycle the journalist was riding.
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.
Ntwali’s reporting on Pax TV-Ireme News, which has about 30,000 followers on YouTube, included coverage of sensitive subjects including the imprisonment of The Chronicles founder Christopher Kayumba, who is also a Rwandan politician. Ntwali had also recently covered the plight of political prisoners in Rwanda, and allegations that detained YouTubers had faced torture behind bars.
CPJ and other press freedom and human rights organizations have demanded an independent investigation into the death.
On February 7, 2023, the Kagarama Primary Court in Kigali convicted Moise Emmanuel Baigirishya, the alleged driver of the vehicle that hit Ntwali, of involuntary manslaughter, according to news reports. The court also convicted him of involuntary bodily harm of a second person who was injured during the accident, and fined him a total of 1 million Rwandan francs (US$920).
Under Rwanda’s penal code, involuntary manslaughter carries a prison term of six months to two years, and/or a fine of 500,000 to 2 million Rwandan francs (US$460 to US$1,840). Unintentional bodily harm carries a prison term of between three months and six months, and/or a fine of 500,000 to 1 million Rwandan Francs (US$460 to US$912).
The conviction stemmed from a January 31 trial, during which Baigirishya confessed and apologized, according to those reports. Human Rights Watch reported that “it was news for many that the trial had taken place,” and news reports said the trial was closed until “a handful of journalists were invited to witness the reading of the verdict,” where Baigirishya was not present.
Ntwali’s family said they would not appeal the judgment, according to reports.
When asked for comment in January 2023, Rwandan 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.
A police spokesperson told CPJ via messaging app that police could not comment as the case had been referred to prosecutors. CPJ’s queries to Rwanda’s National Public Prosecution Authority, sent in January 2023 via messaging app and email, did not receive any replies.