Celebrating World Press Freedom Day in Rwanda may well require journalists, activists, and diplomats to toe the line of the government’s ever-growing list of forbidden topics. In a country where the president coolly gives speeches gloating about the assassination of political opponents, his 2019 warning to online critics that “they are close to the fire” and that one day “the fire will burn them,” will likely be taken very seriously.
It is not unusual for Rwandan journalists to go missing, or end up dead in mysterious circumstances. Having effectively muzzled traditional media, the Rwandan authorities have turned their attention to the new medium used to broadcast information: YouTube. Judging by the crackdown documented by Human Rights Watch over the past year, the authorities have gotten very efficient at online censorship.
Reporting on apparently innocuous – yet critically important – topics like growing poverty under the Covid-19 lockdown, or the eviction of vulnerable populations from poor neighborhoods of Kigali, the capital, can land you in jail. Dieudonné Niyonsenga, also known as Cyuma Hassan, was the latest victim of the Rwandan authorities’ thin-skinned approach to criticism. He was accused of a range of fabricated offenses including impersonating a journalist. Niyonsenga and his driver faced a year-long trial before being acquitted.
He later described in interviews on YouTube that the authorities held him in multiple unknown locations, where he was threatened and told to confess to working with an exiled opposition party that has reported ties to armed groups. Since his release, his reporting on alleged military abuses has continued to cause him trouble.
Bloggers and other YouTube commentators told Human Rights Watch about the different tactics used to silence them. Some were offered bribes to broadcast information that bolsters the government’s line. But if they don’t agree to doing that, threats soon follow. If threats don’t suffice, then arrest is likely. Or worse.
On World Press Freedom Day, Rwanda’s international partners should be asking the government tough questions about media freedom and the journalists who shouldn’t have to risk their lives to do their jobs.