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, they were repeatedly denied bail before their trial started in August 2021.
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 familiar with the case and who spoke to CPJ at the time and requested anonymity due to safety concerns, 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 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.
Between April and June 2021, Niyonsenga, Nshimiyimana, and Mutuyimana continued to appeal court orders denying them bail pending trial, according to reports by the U.S. Congress-funded Voice of America and the local news website The Chronicles. These appeals were rejected, and their trial started in August 2021, according to one of the people familiar with the case who spoke on condition of anonymity. As of late 2021, the next hearing in the case was scheduled for January 2022, that person said.
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.” The commission did not respond to September and November 2021 emails from CPJ requesting comment.
In a phone call in November 2020, Prosecutor General Aimable Havugiyaremye said that his office’s spokesperson, Faustin Nkusi, would respond to queries. Nkusi did not respond to CPJ’s requests for comment sent via messaging app in late 2020 and 2021.
Judiciary spokesperson Harrison Mutabazi also did not respond to CPJ’s emailed requests for comment in late 2020 and 2021 and emails to the Ministry of Justice went unanswered in late 2021.