Multiple Journalists Arrested Throughout COVID-19 Lockdown Period

The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown rules have continued to affect Rwanda and the civil liberties and safety of Rwandans. During the lockdown period, Rwandan Defence Force (RDF) soldiers were accused of heavy-handed tactics in enforcing the lockdown, following reports that two people were shot in March for not following curfew guidelines, as reported on the Monitor. Subsequently, in April, the RDF stated that five soldiers were in court for alleged abuses committed against civilians during lockdown. In national and international news, it was reported that soldiers had raped three women from a neighbourhood in Kigali, beaten passers-by, and stolen goods. It remains unclear whether any investigations were conducted into these alleged violations.

Meanwhile, the Rwandan government and authorities continued to roll out tough measures, such as surveillance and tracking, in dealing with persons deemed to be flouting COVID-19-related restrictions. 

Expression

At least six journalists were arrested in the first two weeks of April 2020 for allegedly violating measures put in place by the government during the COVID-19 lockdown. They included Theoneste Nsengimana, the owner of Umubavu TV, who was arrested on 12th March after allegedly paying citizens to state on camera that they had received money from someone abroad.

On 15th April, a journalist who runs the Youtube news channel Ishema TV, Dieudonné Niyonsenga, and a driver for the channel, Fidèle Komezusenge were arrested for allegedly violating lockdown measures. Whilst authorities stated that both were arrested for violating rules as citizens, persons close to the case alleged that they were wearing journalist identification cards at the time and were on their way to report. On 11th May, a court in Kigali denied both bail and remanded them to prison for 30 days.

CPJ’s sub-Saharan Africa representative, Muthoki Mumo said:

“Journalists and media workers need to do their jobs without interference if the public is to stay informed and authorities are to be held accountable during the COVID-19 pandemic… Authorities in Rwanda should release Dieudonné Niyonsenga and Fidèle Komezusenge, drop any charges against them, and guarantee that the press can work freely during the pandemic.”

In addition, it was reported that throughout April, two other bloggers, working for Afrimax TV and Umubavu TV were arrested following their reports on the rape of three women by RDF soldiers.

In a statement released on 13th April, the Rwandan Media Commission warned journalists against violating measures put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Separately, on 13th July 2020, Ruben Hamuli, a photographer and videographer was arrested for “publishing or spreading rumours online”, for allegedly posting information on Twitter about a previous arrest. Hamuli claimed that he was arrested for not wearing a mask while eating in a public place. He is accused of intending to tarnish the image of the Rwanda National Police (RNP), which carries a minimum sentence of three years in prison.

In other developments, as Rwanda approached its review by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in the framework of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), concerns mounted over a disconnect between law and practice even as the country was credited for undertaking extensive media reforms since its previous UPR review. Despite the existence of a relatively progressive constitutional and legal framework, freedom of expression remains restricted and journalists are routinely targeted, which results in self-censorship. Subsequently, independent media and civil society remain weak after years of harassment and threats. 

In positive news, on 22nd July 2020, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) ruled in favour of two Rwandan journalists, Agnès Uwimana and Saidati Mukakibib, who had been charged and sentenced for the publication of various articles in 2010, which criticised President Paul Kagame. They were found guilty of defaming the President, threatening national security, divisionism and genocide denial and sentenced to 17 and 7 years’ imprisonment respectively. The ACHPR acknowledged that a state may legitimately restrict the right to freedom of expression, but that doing so must be prescribed by law, serve a legitimate public interest and be strictly necessary to achieve such interest. However, they found that the state had failed to show how imprisonment was necessary to protect the reputation of others and was a disproportionate limitation on freedom of expression. It found that the sentences prescribed for defamation under Rwandan law violated the right to freedom of expression under Article 9 of the African Charter, stating that: “Rwanda’s current laws which criminalise and stipulate custodial sentences for defamation and insults are in violation of the right to freedom of expression as protected by the African Charter”. The court requested the Rwandan government to amend its defamation laws and compensate the complainants.

In the latest 2020 World Press Freedom Index compiled by RSF, Rwanda retained its ranking of 155 out of 180 countries.

Peaceful Assembly

In mid-April, nearly 300 refugees living in the Gashora emergency transit centre organised a demonstration against the lockdown and conditions at the centre. The organisers of the protest demanded that investigations be conducted into allegations of physical and sexual abuse by the police commander in charge and called for his removal from the centre after a 16 year-old Eritrean refugee child reported an alleged attempted sexual abuse and physical assault by the officer. The protest was however quickly stopped by Rwandan police.

The refugees living in the cetnre were relocated from Libyan detention centres in 2019 following repeated claims of serious human rights abuses of migrants and refugees in Libya.