Four people are currently in Rwandan jails over content they posted on their YouTube channels – just a few of the more than 10 YouTubers who have fallen victim after posting content that mqy have rubbed the authorities the wrong way.
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 rage 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).
The Chronicles has for the past two years been documenting the cases of a government eager to keep a lid on what its people should access online, and a huge youthful population faced with few employment opportunities, who are increasingly turning to social media.
At the forefront of the government’s efforts are the Ministry of ICT and Innovation, and the Rwanda Media Commission (RMC). The latter, as par its legal statutes, fashions itself as a self-regulatory body for the media. However, it gets all it’s funding from government.
As a consequence, it is increasingly being seen in Rwandan newsrooms as overseeing journalistic work on behalf of the government. The latest in a series of such acts, is a move this week to start registering YouTube channels. As has been reported by The Chronicles, you need Rwf 50,000 ($52) for the registration.
Following our reporting, there has been overwhelming reaction and shock at the move. The RMC and supporters of the move say registration is, firstly, meant for those who want to operate YouTuve channels as “televisions”. Secondly, they say, there is need to put some kind of control on the proliferation of YouTubers whose posts actually bring journalism into disrepute.
But as we report from the victims of this blurred line of what is appropriate and “unprofessional”, if the RMC goes ahead with its registration for YouTubers, many more will fall victim.
Since October 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. The trio are serving time at the Mageragere prison, outside Kigali.
Government accused 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.
Then, there is the case of Niyonsenga Dieudonne alias Cyuma, arrested April 15, who had 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 during the national COVID-19 lockdown.
They both remain in prison as their case has yet to get underway. The facts from the Rwanda Investigations Bureau (RIB) and beats of from Niyonsenga as he languishes in jail, are as divergent as such cases can be.
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. Nsengimana is currently free.
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 were being arrest, is because of various crucial explanations. It was a subject of shocking incident in March in which heavily armed soldiers raped many women during COVID-19 lockdown. Five soldiers were arrested and charged.
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. But two weeks ago, some began moving – sensing if they continued acting like that, it could result in them losing the opportunity to move to new apartments in another suburb.
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 in April 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.
RMC in defense of its latest action to register YouTubers says it is intended to put a stop to a phenomenon where people call officials and ordinary interviewees seeking interviews claiming to be journalists. RMC says, after registration, those seeking interviews for their YouTube channels, will have to present an RMC-issued press card to their interviewees.
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”. He was sentenced to 6 months in jail and Rwf 1m ($1,022) fine. He is now out of jail.
On September 17, 2019, 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 YouTube is Aimable Karasira, a singer by the stage name “Professor Nigga”, and was until recently, a University of Rwanda computer science lecturer. He was fired as a result of his YouTube channel. 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. In November, a Twitter and Facebook campaign was launched by genocide researcher Tom Ndahiro accusing Karasira of negating the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, referencing comments Karasira has made including suggesting that even “Hutus were killed in 1994”.
RIB summoned Karasira last week and according to his narration of what happened during the interrogation, he was given “last warning” over his YouTube posts. RIB has not commented on Karasira’s version.
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. No update is available about his Ndamyabera.
The move to register YouTube channels, comes as another layer to the government push to keep its eye over social media.
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”.
When the ICT and Innovation Minister Ingabire was in parliament, she said government wouldn’t look on as some people used Twitter, Facebook and YouTube 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.”