Rwanda: Wave of Free Speech Prosecutions
Human Rights Watch monitored judicial authorities in Rwanda for prosecuting opposition members, journalists, and commentators for their speech and opinions.
Less than two years from the presidential elections, Rwanda should ensure freedom of expression for civil society activists, journalists, and opposition figures.
“Judicial authorities in Rwanda lack the independence to defend free speech,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Victoire Ingabire, the president of the unregistered opposition party FDU-Inkingi, had to flee prison after being arrested and charged for spreading rumors and forming a criminal association.
Journalists using YouTube as a platform may face prosecution for publishing information that contradicts the government’s version of certain events.
Human Rights Watch documented that Dieudonné Niyonsenga alias Cyuma Hassan – a high-profile YouTuber, – is facing charges of impersonation, hindering public works, and “humiliation of national authorities and persons in charge of public service.”
Since 1994, speaking about crimes committed by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) was perceived as crossing a red line.
Human Rights Watch said the Rwandan government may have legitimate grounds to restrict dangerous, vitriolic speech, but current laws and practices go beyond this and effectively stifle opinions, debate, and criticism of the government.
The 2015 Constitution protects freedom of expression but allows ill-defined restrictions based on public order, good morals, the protection of youth and children, and the protection of personal and family privacy.
As Rwanda prepares to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in June, the international community should press the authorities to release and drop charges against opposition members and journalists.
“The prosecuting authorities’ accusations of incitement to insurrection and attempting to tarnish the country’s image violate African and international human rights law,” said Mudge.
Eight members of Victoire Ingabire’s political opposition, Dalfa-Umurinzi, were arrested on October 13 and 14, 2021, and were tried with one journalist.
Sibomana, Rucubanganya, Hagenimana, Ndayishimiye, Mutabazi, Nahimana, and Masengesho were charged for spreading false information and inciting insurrection.
Human Rights Watch said that the arrest of Claudine Uwimana sent a clear message to those who may wish to campaign or organize on a political platform.
The prosecution used as evidence the group’s decision to acquire a book and follow a training organized by a nonviolent activist, and the use of Jitsi – an encrypted online communication platform.
Social protest and mobilization offer people the opportunity to peacefully communicate legitimate complaints. Governments must create a safe and enabling environment for individuals to exercise their rights.
In 2020, police arrested Niyonsenga and his driver, Fidèle Komezusenge, for being outside during lockdown without a valid press card. They were acquitted and gave several interviews.
Niyonsenga was convicted of forgery, impersonation, hindering public works, and humiliating public officials, which charges were struck down from the 2018 Penal Code by the Supreme Court in 2019.
The court found that Niyonsenga presented himself as a journalist without accreditation from the self-regulatory RMC. The court’s decision violated his right to a fair trial by a competent and impartial court.
Even though Niyonsenga paid the 20,000 Rwandan Francs ($20) to register at RMC, the prosecution argued that he had practiced journalism before registering.
Requirements to register journalists to obtain information and express oneself online are not justified in a context of repression like Rwanda.
The 2019 Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa states that governments should guarantee independent media, including online media.
Théoneste Nsengimana was arrested in April 2020 on accusations of fraud. He allegedly promised people 20,000 Rwandan Francs ($20) for stories about foreign aid.
After a court case in Kicukiro ordered his release, Nsengimana’s YouTube channel hosted discussions on current affairs with Aimable Karasira, who was arrested in October 2021.
Nsengimana was charged with spreading false information on his YouTube channel in the lead-up to “Ingabire day” with the intent to cause a hostile international opinion against the Rwandan government.
Human Rights Watch said the case against Innocent Bahati was designed to send a message not to question the government’s version of events in cases of suspicious deaths, enforced disappearances, and prosecutions of critics and dissidents.
A former professor of technology at the University of Rwanda, Aimable Karasira, has spoken about his family members’ deaths in the 1994 genocide on his YouTube channel.
The prosecution cited excerpts from Karasira’s interview with Agnès Nkusi Uwimana, a journalist that runs a YouTube channel, as evidence during his pretrial hearing.
The prosecution presented Karasira’s comments as genocide denial since he made a claim that the arrest of former prominent businessman Félicien Kabuga, one of the alleged masterminds of the genocide, was not because he provided machetes.
The prosecution has argued that Karasira’s claims that the RPF had attacked Rwanda prior to the genocide are justification for the genocide and that he is dividing the survivors to justify their rule.
Rwandan laws on genocide ideology can be manipulated to silence people who want to talk about the RPF’s crimes or challenge the official narrative around the genocide.
In her first YouTube video, Idamange questioned the government’s approach to commemorations of the genocide. On 30 September 2021, she was convicted of inciting insurrection and spreading rumors.
Idamange was found guilty of inciting unrest in Rwanda by stating that Covid-19 had become a pretext for political gains, that state institutions weren’t doing their work, and that Rwanda is a country without a shepherd.
Idamange’s statements that the Rwandan government threatens genocide survivors by killing people and exposing dead bodies were deemed to be desecration of memorial sites and genocide minimization.
Human Rights Watch believes that the arrest of Idamange and the severity of her sentence were designed to intimidate anyone thinking of expressing controversial views on the genocide.
Human Rights Watch said Rwandan authorities should not use the criminal law to prevent people from challenging official versions of historical events.