At an appearance in Parliament on May 11 last year, ICT and Innovation Minister Paula Ingabire announced that government was devising strategy to ensure social media is not used for “disorganization of Rwandan society”.
Now 12 people are either in jail or in Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) cells awaiting processing to go to prison after they fell on the wrong side of government’s preferred version of social media content. However, though several others are free, they did also get a taste of the same medicine.
In the past five years, there has been explosion of YouTube channels that brand themselves as television channels. Some are video versions of existing Kinyarwanda language news sites. Others are uploaded by people who worked in the media, but opted out due to no payments.
At the same time, disagreements in the media fraternity went on as to whether people flooding YouTube with content, and others on Twitter and Facebook – yet not attached to any media, should be referred to as journalists. Some actually have official press cards that are obligatory for journalists, provided by the Rwanda Media Commission (RMC).
This Monday April 13, the RMC, a body established as a media self regulatory platform, yet funded directly by Government as its not allowed to generate its own budgets, attempted to remove the “journalist” tag from some YouTubers.
RMC in a statement said YouTubers should not go around interviewing people claiming to be journalists if they dont have a press card. RMC intervention followed latest new cases of arrests by security personnel enforcing a government-imposed national lockdown to control spread of COVID-19 virus.
Since last week, six (6) YouTubers have been arrested as they conducted interviews in Kigali’s neighborhoods. Others were arrested, not doing interviews, but after posting videos deemed inappropriate by the authorities.
Yesterday April 15, RIB arrested Niyonsenga Dieudonne alias Cyuma, who has a Kinyarwanda tabloid website ISHEMA and YouTube channel “ISHEMA TV”. Together with a person who was driving Komezusenge Fidele, RIB says they were disregarding the “stay home” government order.
Earlier, another individual Nsengimana Theoneste who also has tabloid website UMUBAVU and YouTube channel “UMUBAVU TV” was also arrested. RIB said he went to poor Kigali neighborhood where he paid Rwf 20,000 ($21) to group of people -for which they were to appear on camera thanking him for delivering help during COVID-19 lockdown.
On April 8, RIB also arrested 6 people including two crew of the locally popular YouTube channel AFRIMAX TV identified as Byiringiro David and Innocent Valentin Muhirwa. These had also gone to the Bannyahe neighborhood.
The reason the Bannyahe neighborhood is where the YouTubers are being arrest, is because of various crucial explanations. It was a subject of shocking incident late last month in which soldiers raped many women during COVID-19 lockdown. Five soldiers are facing prosecution.
The same neighborhood has some of the worst living conditions of any slum in Kigali. Thousands of desperately poor people call this place home. They have refused a government offer to be relocated.
The YouTubers are not the only ones regularly seeking news from this neighborhood. If a media wants to report about the rot government is unable to solve, this Bannyahe neighborhood says it all. The YouTubers, particularly ISHEMA TV and UMUBAVU TV, had made it their agenda to go to different neighborhoods producing videos of locals crying of hunger due to the Coronavirus lockdown. These channels also carry videos of people fighting to get small portions of food being delivered by government agencies.
It seems, government had had enough of the negative videos. Before the statement by the Rwanda Media Commission taking stand on YouTubers, their arrests provoked anger on social media from some sections of the media fraternity. After the RMC went to the side of the Government, there has been mixed reaction.
There is also separate case of Ndamyabera Reverien, said to be a traditional doctor. Around March 16, a video surfaced on YouTube, in which Ndamyabera claimed to have cure for COVID-19 virus. He was arrested immediately.
These YouTubers are a small number of the government’s social media crackdown. The Chronicles has kept database of people in jail before the Coronavirus pandemic, due to the content they posted on social media.
Since 2018, three young men are in jail as a result of content that appeared on their YouTube channel IWACU TV. They are Mutuyimana Jean Damascène, Nshimiyimana Jean Baptiste and Niyonsenga Schadrack.
Government accuses them of using IWACU TV to spread rumours that could undermine state security. The channel is alleged to have posted various videos including one where they report that government was panicking due to the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), reference to grouping of dissidents headed by exiled former army chief Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa in South Africa.
Another set of three people is Rene Hubert Nsengiyumva – who operated IBYISHIMO.com a religious affairs news site, Jean Paul Niyitanga, a reporter for the site and local evangelist Steven Habimana Alias Niyibeshaho.
The troubles of the three stemmed from the Miss Rwanda 2019 contest in January last year. They are accused of using YouTube channel IBYISHIMO TV to propagate information filled with ethnic undertones to promote contestant Josiane Mwiseneza.
On January 7 the same year, prosecutors claim that IBYISHIMO.com site ran a story that described Mwiseneza as contestant for Rwandans, while other contestants were foreigners.
The next day, a video was published on the site’s YouTube channel IBYISHIMO TV in which the evangelist Steven Habimana Alias Niyibeshaho said if Mwiseneza is not crowned Miss Rwanda 2019, Rwandans would be in tears and sorrow.
The case of the three remains a mystery. Prosecution of the case did not continue. The site is offline, and the YouTube channel has not been update since they were arrested. They are also nowhere to be seen, as there is no news of their whereabouts.
There is also the case of Olivier Habimana arrested in March 2019. He was working with state broadcaster RBA, but secretly also running a YouTube channel where government says he was posting “rumours”. There is no news yet about his case.
On September 17, radio and TV presenter Irénè Mulindahabi was arrested by RIB accused of posting obscene videos on his YouTube channel. His charges were dropped and was freed following intervention of Justice Minister and Attorney General Johnston Busingye.
Another victim of the government’s eye over social media is Aimable Karasira, a singer by the stage name “Professor Nigga” as well as University of Rwanda computer science lecturer. Karasira had been a regular guest on YouTube channels, making politically charged comments.
In one YouTube video, Karasira said the happiest Rwandans enjoying government’s goodwill are women and criminals. According to him, in other countries, criminals are killed by mob justice. Yet in Rwanda, if the police finds a suspect injured, those who captured him will also be punished.
A few days after news of Karasira’s reported disappearance in mid August 2019, Facebook and WhatsApp groups were already filled with claims the security apparatus may have arrested him. He did emerge, saying he was attending a conference in Kigali. He also said he had been arrested twice before over his comments.
Karasira is a free man today, and has his own YouTube channel “UKURI MBONA”. It is another ticking time bomb.
When the ICT and Innovation Minister Ingabire was in parliament in that session of May 2019, she said government wouldn’t look on as some people used Twitter and Facebook for misinformation, defamation and disorganization of society.
“We are engaging users and stakeholders to devise a regulatory framework for social media content because when it’s not lies being spread, it is misinformation or defamation,” she said.
She added: “We are not going to wait until the country breaks down before we act to have an environment where social media is a tool used for the good of the nation and the people.”
Earlier in March 2019, a young woman Isimbi Noeline released nude photos on her Instagram page. It was first such case where the photos are not leaked, but instead posted by the one in the photos. Isimbi had been a contestant for Miss Rwanda 2019 earlier.
Isimbi provoked tempers from all sides. There were angry condemners and loud supporters in equal measure. Culture and Sports Minister Espérance Nyirasafari told local media that Isimbi should be arrested and prosecuted – comments that didn’t go down well with Isimbi’s supporters.
Indeed, RIB summoned Isimbi, was questioned but not detained. We may never know why no charges were pressed, but it seems that the authorities didn’t want her case to be around too long. Today, Isimbi still publishes nude photos.