Rwandan journalist Shadrack Niyonsenga was arrested alongside his colleagues Damascene Mutuyimana and Jean Baptiste Nshimiyimana in October 2018. Charged with causing unrest and spreading rumors, the three remained in pretrial detention in late 2020.
On October 9, 2018, authorities arrested Niyonsenga, Nshimiyimana, and Mutuyimana, all reporters for Iwacu TV, a Kinyarwanda-language news broadcaster on YouTube, according to a BBC report, four journalists who are familiar with the case, and documents reviewed by CPJ.
During an October 2018 court hearing in Nyarugenge, a district in the capital Kigali, the prosecution alleged that the journalists had incited insurrection and spread false information with the intent of tarnishing Rwanda’s image abroad, crimes punishable by up to 15 years in prison, according to the documents and CPJ’s review of the penal code.
The prosecution cited videos that alleged a war was brewing in Rwanda and that rebels had taken over parts of the country, saying these materials were also found on laptops confiscated from the journalists and on the Iwacu TV YouTube channel, according to the BBC report and the documents.
The YouTube channel, which aggregates other news sources and sometimes presents these reports with new commentary and insight on the topics, covers issues including politics, relationships, and sports, according to CPJ’s review of the channel. The last videos posted to the Iwacu TV channel were uploaded on September 25, 2018.
CPJ reviewed a September 20, 2018, video on Iwacu TV’s YouTube page that heavily cited other media sources and alleged that the Rwanda National Congress, an opposition group in exile, had support in Uganda and Burundi. Rwandan authorities have previously accused Uganda of providing a “safe haven” for the RNC, according to multiple reports by the privately owned newspaper, The EastAfrican.
The three defendants denied the charges and said that they aggregated their content from local media and international media houses but exaggerated some of their headlines to draw traffic, according to the BBC report. In response to allegations that their content caused fear, the journalists said that they had received no such feedback from viewers since they started the YouTube channel.
In October 2018, the court ordered Niyonsenga, Nshimiyimana, and Mutuyimana to be detained pending investigation for 30 days, and then renewed that order several times over the next year, in part because prosecutors claimed they needed more time to investigate and have experts review their devices, according to the documents and one person familiar with the case who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. The Rwandan criminal procedure code allows authorities to renew the initial 30-day pretrial detention period for up to one year before the start of a trial.
The documents that CPJ reviewed indicate that in 2019 prosecutors changed the charges against the journalists several times. In mid-2019, the charges were changed to broadcasting distorted images, an offense which carries a prison term of up to one year; the defendants argued that by the time of their trial date, which was set for late 2019 at the time, they would have been detained for longer than the maximum prison term for the offense, according to those documents.
By early 2020 the charges had changed again, and the journalists were once again facing up to 15 years in prison for allegedly causing an uprising and spreading false information, according to the documents CPJ reviewed.
In late 2020 they were detained at Nyarugenge Prison, awaiting a trial date from the High Court after the prosecution successfully challenged the jurisdiction of the Nyarugenge Primary Court to hear the charges, according to the documents and two people following the case who spoke to CPJ in September 2020, who requested anonymity for safety concerns.
Emmanuel Mugisha, the executive secretary of the self-regulatory body, the Rwanda Media Commission, told CPJ on December 1, 2018, that the Iwacu TV YouTube channel was not a registered media outlet and that the body did not consider its content as journalism. In a later call, Mugisha said that because the journalists said they had not intended to cause alarm and apologized, he expected the court may release them soon.
In a November 2020 email, the Rwanda Media Commission said that it had visited the Iwacu TV journalists in prison earlier and had provided legal aid. The email said that while there was concern that their trial had taken a long time, the commission could not comment “since the matter is before the court of law.”
Rwandan Justice Minister Johnston Busingye did not respond to emails and messages from CPJ requesting comment on Niyonsenga’s detention in September and November 2020.
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.