As we celebrate World Freedom Day today, May 3, 2021, it is important to remember three Rwandan journalists arrested and imprisoned in 2018 for doing their job. The three were denied bail and their case is yet to be heard, about three years after their imprisonment.
In early October 2018 Jean Baptiste Nshimiyimana was in Muhanga district, about 1-hour drive south of Kigali, when he received a call from his church pastor. It was urgent, the pastor told him. Like many Rwandans, he obliged immediately.
At the pastor’s place, Nshimiyimana found other people there who said they had questions to ask him and that he would return immediately. Confident he was in safe hands, and with his spiritual guardian present, Nshimiyimana didn’t suspect anything.
It was the last time the young graduate from the University of Rwanda’s School of Journalism and Communication, ever saw freedom.
A recollection of events by The Chronicles, shows that Nshimiyimana’s two colleagues Shadrack Niyonsenga and Damascene Mutuyimana were also separately picked up from different locations in Kigali the following days.
Nshimiyimana was the the team leader as they ran a popular YouTube channel IWACU TV. The colleagues had meanwhile been employed by two separate local news organizations. As is normally the case, the two media outlets they worked for never intervened to help; they just kept silent up to today.
None of the three knew that the others had been arrested. They were not taken to police stations. Instead, according to our sources, were kept in places they themselves don’t remember. They must have been ungazetted facilities called Safe Houses.
The three themselves confirmed that they were not physically tortured while in detention, but that were put through endless psychological torture. They were asked about links to rebel forces and exiled groups. Each, in their location, were told the others had confessed, and so had to do so too. They were told their YouTube channel was funded by “enemies of Rwanda”.
In late October, the three met for the first time at the Nyarugenge Primary Court in Kigali. It was the start of their now long stay in jail together.
In court, a state prosecutor said they were charged with spreading “false information or harmful propaganda” with the intention to cause hostile international opinion against the Rwandan government, causing uprising or unrest among the population and formation of and joining a criminal organization. They faced up to 20 years in jail if convicted.
Their charges, said prosecution, emanated from data retrieved from their laptops and videos posted on IWACU TV. The channel allegedly carried videos that reported that the Rwandan government was panicking for fear of the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), an opposition group led by exiled ex-Army chief Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa.
With all this information, said the prosecutor, the suspects needed to be maintained in detention for 30 days as investigations continued. Days later, the judge obliged. They were remanded to Nyarugenge prison, or commonly known as Magerarere. It is where they remain to date.
No help from local media fraternity
Since arrest of the trio, global media rights group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has been the sole voice advocating their case. The Rwanda Media Commission, (RMC), which is in charge of media self-regulation and therefore which should have heard their case if it was a professional mistake abandoned the trio and in one of the meetings with online media owners, its executive secretary claimed they had been convicted even before their case was heard in court!
But when asked to comment on record, RMC’s executive secretary, Emmanuel Mugisha repeatedly says the case is before a court of law, which bars him from commenting. Interestingly, Mugisha never addresses why its over three years and the three journalists are yet to be formally tried for the alleged crimes. Every time they appear in court, prosecution either changes charges or still addresses procedural matters and prays for denial of bail for the trio.
We have however learnt that, when it was still under Gonzaga Muganwa as the Executive Secretary, the Association of Rwandan Journalists (ARJ) assisted the three journalists and, through Legal Aid, ensured that the three got legal representation.
The Chronicles and foreign broadcasters BBC and VOA Kinyarwanda/Kirundi language channels have been the only media that have reported about the case.
We have reviewed the IWACU TV YouTube channel. It was last update September 25, 2018. It has accumulated more than 200,000 subscribers, a notably large number by local standards. One of the videos has over 722,000 views. The channel has attracted a total viewership of more than 21m views, indication of how popular it had become.
To avoid a conflict of interest, The Chronicles opted to use analysis of the channel done by CPJ. It found the channel aggregated other news sources and sometimes presented these reports with new commentary and insight on the topics. It also covered issues including politics, relationships, and sports.
CPJ reviewed a September 20, 2018, video on IWACU TV’s YouTube page, which was cited by prosecution in court. The video heavily cited other media sources and alleged that the RNC, had support in Uganda and Burundi.
Other videos reported that the FLN rebel group had occupied a territory inside Rwanda. They were referring to a group, whose top 21 political and military commanders, including Hotel Rwanda movie’s Paul Rusesabagina, are facing charges in Rwanda.
Earlier in mid 2018, the FLN had attacked southwestern Rwanda, leaving some dead and injuries, according to the Rwanda Defense Forces (RDF). More attacks took place later. While the government stopped at that, the FLN issued statements and gave interviews to BBC and VOA claiming they had killed RDF soldiers and were occupying some sectors inside Rwanda. The army or government has never commented on these FLN statements.
As for RNC, Rwandan authorities have repeatedly accused Uganda of providing a “safe haven” for them, and “safe passage” for recruits heading to DR Congo to join the military wing P5. The same has been with FLN, which government says was able to attack because it was provided passage by Burundi from eastern DR Congo, on to Nyungwe Forest National Park.
All the information that IWACU TV was relaying, was public information already widely disseminated by government itself and reported by local media.
The accused trio Niyonsenga, Nshimiyimana, and Mutuyimana appeared in court several times, each appearance being either adjourned or their detention extended during 2019. Prosecution repeatedly asked for more time to “complete the investigation”, to which the judge concurred.
In all their appearances, the trio denied all the charges. They argued that they aggregated their content from local media and international media, but that they exaggerated some of their headlines to attract YouTube traffic, according to CPJ. 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.
Spending 3rd World Press Freedom Day in jail
In mid-2019, prosecution came with a revised charge sheet. 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.
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. For much of last year, their case came to a halt like others due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mugisha, the RMC executive secretary reportedly 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 RMC 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 Niyonsengas’ 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.
At the beginning of 2021, the trio filed appeal in the Court of Appeal accusing the state of illegal detention. The lower courts had all sided with the state to keep them in detention without trial. Through their lawyers Jean Paul Ibambe and Gilbert Ndayambaje, the accused journalists told the Court of Appeals judges that their charge sheet had been changed several times.
Their last appearance was on April 6. They want court to release them unconditionally since they had stayed in pretrial detention for too long.
As we report about the Niyonsenga, Nshimiyimana, and Mutuyimana case, they are spending a third World Press Freedom Day celebrated each year May 3, behind bars – with no signs their case will ever be concluded.
Meanwhile, in Muhanga district, the pastor who telephoned Jean Baptiste Nshimiyimana to be handed to his captors, continues to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.