The High Court of Special Appeals for international crimes and cross-border crimes, located in Nyanza, convicted Idamange Iryamugwiza Yvonne and sentenced him to 15 years in prison and a fine of 2 million Frw in September 2021. The Court of Appeal indicates that the trial of Idamnge Iryamugwiza Yvonne is scheduled for March 8, 2023 after appealing the sentence handed down by the High Court. Detained in Nyarugenge Prison located in Mageragere from April 9, 2021, the 42-year-old Idamange was arrested on February 15, 2021, days after he used social media to publish words encouraging people to protest in front of the Office of the President. This woman began to be widely mentioned in the media in February 2021, before that she was not even known. She took to YouTube and streamed talks containing expressions that were shown to be offensive to the public. The woman pleaded not guilty, saying that no one was killed by the words she said, and that it was nothing to call the people to follow her. She said that he is not a leader; he has no party so that the people would obey her. What should we expect from this appeal before Rwandan courts? Surely nothing from this court but just confirmation or aggravation of her penalty given that the Rwandan judiciary is politicized.
The High Court Chamber of International and Cross Border Crimes on Thursday sentence Yvonne Idamange Iryamugwiza, the self-proclaimed YouTube activist, to 15 years in prison after she was found guilty on all six charges she was facing, which include inciting insurrections or public uprising and denigrating genocide commemoration artifacts. Idamange was also found guilty of publication of rumours, assault and causing bodily harm, obstructing the work of law enforcement organs and issuing a bouncing cheque. The Judge said the accused published several videos on YouTube with the intention of causing insurrections, instability and tarnishing the image of the government and the leadership. Idamange will also pay a fine of Rwf2m. During the trial Prosecutors detailed how Idamange, in various videos deliberately propagated rumors or falsehoods with the intention of inciting people to go and protest at the Office of the President of the Republic. During submissions, prosecution mainly relied on evidence from the videos which were posted on Youtube before her arrest and a bounced cheque worth Rwf400, 000, which she issued to one Emmanuel Nsabimana. Court found that Idamange made false and disparaging claims with a purpose of inciting people to rise up against the government and also deliberately made claims about the life of the President of the Republic, well knowing that they were false. In one of the videos, Idamange claimed that the Head of State ‘died long ago’ and citizens should go to Village Urugwiro and protest, demanding to see his body. Idamange further referred to the government as a ‘bunch of bandits.’ Court also heard how Idamange said that COVID-19 had become a new tool the government was using to repress people, replacing the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, further claiming that the Government had turned Genocide memorial sites into tourist attractions. “The government is selling the bodies of our loved ones” claimed Idamange. Prosecutors said that most of her remarks were insulting, derogatory and false in every sense. Prosecution further said that Idamange deliberately refused to cooperate in a law enforcement exercise, by refusing to open for Police officers when they came to arrest her on February 15. When they eventually gained access, she attacked one of the officers with a bottle, injuring him in the process. Her application for bail was denied twice by the primary and intermediate courts.
Does Rwanda recognize press freedom?
Article 38 of the Constitution of Rwanda 2003 guarantees “the freedom of expression and freedom of access to information where it does not prejudice public order, good morals, the protection of the youth and children, the right of every citizen to honor and dignity and protection of personal and family privacy.” However, in reality, this has not guaranteed freedom of speech or expression given that the government has declared many forms of speech fall into the exceptions. Under these exceptions, longtime Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, asserted that any acknowledgment of the separate people was detrimental to the unification of post-Genocide Rwanda and has created numerous laws to prevent Rwandans from promoting a “genocide ideology” and “divisionism.” However, the law does not explicitly define such terms, nor does it define that one’s beliefs must be spoken. For example, the law defines divisionism as ‘the use of any speech, written statement, or action that divides people, that is likely to spark conflicts among people, or that causes an uprising which might degenerate into strife among people based on discrimination’. Fear of the possible ramifications from breaking these laws has caused a culture of self-censorship within the population. Both civilians and the press typically avoid anything that could be construed as critical of the government/military or promoting “divisionism.
Information control in the media
Article 34 of the Rwandan constitution states that “freedom of the press and freedom of information are recognized and guaranteed by the state”. However, the constitution does not in practice prevent media restrictions. In response to the effects of the radio broadcasts in encouraging the genocide, in the years following the genocide, Rwanda’s government imposed strict guidelines for freedom of speech and press in relation to the genocide and the Hutu and Tutsi ideologues. Kagame proposed that these laws were necessary for retaining national unity and protecting against future genocide. These strict media laws have translated into banning government criticism and restricting freedom of speech. Furthermore, the country’s broad definition of the limits of free speech has allowed for police to make their own interpretations of the law and exile journalists as the government pleases. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the government threatens journalists who investigate or criticize the government. The CPJ proposed that these threats and the possible jail sentences cause journalists to self-censor, even beyond what would normally be censored by the government.
Rwandan journalists are required to obtain licenses from the government controlled Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA). Article 34, along with the bans on speech that includes genocide ideology and divisionism, has commonly been used as a method for revoking journalists licenses. Commonly, these laws are used to block opposition voices such as when the government blocked Inyenyeri News, The Rwandan, and Le Prophete. In a documentary, BBC mentioned that a significant number of Hutus were killed and discussed theories of the RPF shooting down the president’s plane. In response to the documentary, the Rwandan government suspended all critical media.
Information control in politics
Since taking office, Kagame has implemented information and media controls to prevent the spread of dissent, including threatening and imprisoning journalists and political opponents for breaking his rules or disrespecting his government and military. Kagame’s censorship of access to independent media and human rights organizations that do not support his administration has been viewed as a route to eliminating political dissent during elections. His opponents from the past two presidential elections have been jailed after the elections. His 2010 election opponent, Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, served 8 years of a 15-year prison sentence for “conspiracy against the country through terrorism and war” and “genocide denial“. His 2017 opponent, Diane Rwigara, was imprisoned for more than a year and placed on trial, where she faced the prospect of 22 years in prison for incitement and fraud due to the content of her campaign. There are often rumors of political opponents being assassinated, even after they have taken refuge in other countries. The two very well-known instances of this were the assassinations of Patrick Karegeya and André Kagwa Rwisereka. Karegeya was a former Rwandan chief of external intelligence and founder of the opposition party, Rwandan National Congress, who was murdered in South Africa, and Rwisereka was a founding member of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda. In 2017, his administration attempted to create rules that would require government approval of all social media by politicians in order to ensure opposition candidates were not “poisoning the minds” of Rwandans. After international backlash, this policy was never enacted
Education under censorship
While before the genocide, Rwandan history textbooks would acknowledge and highlight differences between Tutsi and Hutu people, today, the only government approved Rwandan history textbook stresses the Rwandans as one people and virtually ignore the ethnic differences and pre-genocide conflicts. Furthermore, both many Rwandan people and international scholars feel that the teaching of the genocide does not properly teach students the entire story of the genocide. In 2016, Rwanda introduced a curriculum that hoped to bring more balanced discussion to the topic of the genocide, however, the Rwandan laws relating the “divisionism” and “genocide ideology” still limit the scope of such discussion. Teachers are reported to fear the repercussions from discussing the genocide in a non-approved way and self-censor opinions under these rules.
Prosecutions of bloggers and commentators
Since 2018, over a dozen YouTube bloggers, journalists, and commentators have been detained, arrested, or put on trial. In April 2020, four bloggers working for Afrimax TV, Ishema TV, and Umubavu TV were arrested in circumstances that appeared retaliatory and accused of a range of offenses, including violating Covid-19 lockdown measures. They had been doing sensitive reporting on a range of issues, including the impact of the lockdown on the population. In previous months, they had also shared testimony about a longstanding dispute with the authorities over land evictions in “Bannyahe,” a poor neighborhood in the capital. Dieudonné Niyonsenga, the owner of Ishema TV, and his driver, Fidèle Komezusenge, were arrested on April 15, while on a reporting trip. The prosecution had accused them of working without accreditation from the RMC and sought an eight-year sentence for Niyonsenga and five-year sentence for Komezusenge. On March 12, 2021, the Gasabo Intermediate Court in Kigali acquitted Niyonsenga of forgery, “claiming to be attached to a profession,” and “hindering public works,” and Komezusenge of complicity in forgery and impersonation. Both were released on March 13. On March 13, Niyonsenga said in an interview on Umubavu TV that after his arrest, he was held in multiple locations, told to confess to working with the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), an exiled opposition party with reported ties to armed groups, and accused of taking drugs and attacking law enforcement officers.
On April 12, 2020, RIB tweeted confirmation of the arrest of Théoneste Nsengimana, the owner of Umubavu TV, for alleged fraud. RIB accused him of promising 20,000 Rwandan Francs ($20) to people to say they were receiving assistance from abroad “for the purpose of soliciting the story for his own benefit.” A Kicukiro court ordered Nsengimana’s release from pretrial detention in May due to the prosecution’s lack of evidence against him, but the charges had not been dropped at time of publication.
On April 8, 2020, RIB and police agents arrested Valentin Muhirwa and David Byiringiro, two bloggers with Afrimax TV, in Kangondo II, Kigali. A witness told Human Rights Watch at the time that after interviewing the population about their concerns, including not having enough food, the journalists had returned with food and supplies. Two residents said that after 30 minutes, RIB and police agents appeared, accused them of violating the government directives and organizing an unauthorized distribution, confiscated the goods, and arrested them. Muhirwa and Byiringiro were released later that month.
The RMC said in a statement on April 13, 2020 that the detained bloggers were not arrested in retaliation for their work and that online bloggers, such as those using YouTube, are not journalists and are “not authorized to interview the population.” Despite the RMC’s efforts to dispute the status of bloggers, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which interprets the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has issued authoritative guidance to governments on their obligations with respect to freedom of expression confirming that journalism is a function shared by a variety of actors, including bloggers. Flying in the face of the facts, during Rwanda’s 2021 UPR, the then Justice Minister Johnston Busingye said that “there are no prosecutions that target persons simply because they are politicians or journalists or human rights defenders, and the so-called political trials do not exist.” The justice minister’s statement raises serious questions over the government’s willingness to carry out the necessary reforms to protect free speech.
Charges for genocide denial
Over the last 27 years, a campaign allegedly to combat “divisionism” and “genocidal ideology” has in fact created the risk of serious consequences for anyone who questions official interpretations of Rwanda’s past. Talking about the victims of violence by the soldiers of the ruling RPF as they took over the country in 1994 is seen by many as a red line that will most likely lead to retaliation.
Yet, in recent years, some commentators have taken to YouTube to discuss the 1994 genocide and the war crimes committed by the RPF in its aftermath. One example is Aimable Karasira, a former information communication technology professor at the University of Rwanda, who has spoken about losing family members both to Hutu extremists and to the RPF in 1994 on his YouTube channel called “Ukuri Mbona” (“the truth I see” in Kinyarwanda). In July 2020, Bamporiki Edward then culture and youth state minister, attacked Karasira on social media and said he should not be allowed to teach. Karasira was dismissed from the University of Rwanda on August 14 for “the expression of attitudes and opinions through controversial statements” and “spreading information intended for inciting people to dislike or dishonor your institution and public institutions in general.” He later said in a Youtube video that he was summoned to the RIB office on December 8, where he was told to stop talking about the genocide. Yvonne Idamange, an online commentator who has criticized the lockdown and the government-organized genocide commemorations, was arrested on February 15, 2021, after posting a video in which she falsely claimed that President Kagame was dead, and called for the army to serve the people or face the wrath of God, and for Rwandans to march with their Bibles toward the office of the president. Policemen forced their way into Idamange’s home without an arrest or search warrant and took her into custody, two well-informed sources said. Rwanda National Police accused her of “exhibiting behavior that mixes politics, criminality, and madness.” Idamange has been denied bail and faces charges including “inciting public disorder,” and “publication of rumors.” She remains in detention. On March 9, a journalist and editor of Umurabyo news site and YouTube channel, Agnès Uwimana Nkusi, was detained for several hours and her phone apparently searched after recording one of Idamange’s pretrial hearings. In her first video, Idamange criticized the monetization of genocide memorials for tourism, in which “the bodies of our relatives are being sold” and questioned notions of collective guilt and commemorations. She has been charged with “disposing of or degrading evidence or information relating to genocide.”
On February 5, the National Commission for the Fight against Genocide (Commission nationale pour la lutte contre le genocide, CNLG) in a statement warned against speech on social media that is criminalized under the 2018 genocide ideology law, and later named Idamange on national radio. The commission is an ostensibly independent body that defends the official narrative on the genocide. On February 14, the commission’s executive secretary, Jean Damascène Bizimana, in a Voice of America interview, cited a number of YouTube channels
He considered to be “crossing a red line” and to be providing a platform for genocide denial or minimization. Idamange also said in her last video that Bamporiki visited her home twice, threatened her, tried to bribe her to stop posting videos, and told her that if she did not stop, she would die. Bamporiki later confirmed his visit to Idamange’s house but denied her allegations. Two of Idamange’s domestic workers and two of her friends, who were detained at the time of her arrest, were released one week later. In Rwanda, government officials often issue warnings and threats against those who speak out on sensitive issues. The combination of threats, vaguely defined offenses, and the risk of incurring disproportionate prison terms or fines has created an environment in which the threat of prosecution looms over anyone who dares to speak out about controversial or sensitive issues, Human Rights Watch said. It’s legitimate for the government of Rwanda to seek to restrict the kind of dangerous, vitriolic speech that led to the deaths of over half a million people in 1994, but there is noted that current laws and practices go far beyond this purpose and effectively stifle opinions, debate, and criticism of the government.
Domestic law hostile to free speech
Rwandan law allows for overly broad and vague limitations on free speech, which violate the right to freedom of expression and media freedom protections afforded by international law. Article 38 of the 2015 Constitution nominally protects freedom of expression but claws back that protection through ill-defined restrictions on the basis of “public order, good morals, the protection of the youth and children, the right of every citizen to honor and dignity and protection of personal and family privacy.” These restrictions are incompatible with Rwanda’s regional and international obligations.
Rwanda’s 2018 Penal Code contains several provisions that can enable abusive prosecutions and have fostered a culture of self-censorship. Although the Supreme Court ruled in April 2019 to repeal articles that criminalized “public defamation of religious rituals” and the “humiliation” of authorities and public servants, several provisions remain that place disproportionate and unwarranted sanctions on speech deemed defamatory or false. Article 236, which criminalized “insults or defamation against the president,” was repealed in 2019. In recent years there had been documented several cases of abusive prosecutions of people who spoke out about human rights abuses and were convicted of “spreading false information with intent to create a hostile international opinion against the Rwandan state.” The Law on the Prevention of Cybercrimes also prohibits the publication of “rumors,” punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to three million Rwandan Francs ($3,000). Falsity of information alone does not constitute legitimate grounds to criminalize free speech under international law.
Rwanda’s 2013 media law narrowly defines journalists and the activities they can carry out, yet the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ (ACHPR) declaration of principles on freedom of expression and access to information in Africa broadly protects journalists and online media. The Media Law also introduced a self-regulatory body, the Rwanda Media Commission (RMC), which is tasked with regulating “the conduct of journalists.” During Niyonsenga and Komezusenge’s trial, the prosecution accused them of working without registration from the RMC and cited the Media Law’s narrow definition of journalists to justify its charges of “impersonation” and “forgery.”
In the Media Law, the national utilities statutory regulator – the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA) – is tasked with the regulating “audio, audiovisual media and internet.” Under Rwanda’s ICT Law, communications deemed “grossly offensive,” “false” or “causing annoyance, inconvenience, or needless anxiety” are prohibited and the government can direct RURA to ensure the suspension of networks or services “to protect the public from any threat to public safety, public health or in the interest of national security.”
Article 126 of the ICT Law also allows the government to interrupt private communications deemed contrary to “existing law, public order or good morals.” In its general comment, the Human Rights Committee has affirmed that imposing a general ban on operating some websites and systems is inconsistent with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Finally, Rwandan laws on the genocide, which may have been intended to prevent and punish hate speech of the kind that led to the 1994 genocide, have in fact restricted free speech and imposed strict limits on how people can talk about the genocide and other events of 1994. Rwandan Law defines genocide ideology as a public act that manifests an ideology that supports or advocates for destroying – in whole or in part – a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.
The latest revision of the law adopted in 2018 removed language requiring evidence of a “deliberate” act. “Affirming that there was a double genocide,” which could be interpreted to refer to crimes committed by the RPF, “providing wrong statistics about victims of the genocide” and “distorting the facts about genocide for the purpose of misleading the public” are punishable by up to seven years in prison and a fine of at least 500,000 Rwandan Francs ($500). Rwandan authorities’ efforts to combat genuine genocide denial should not involve criminal penalties for mere speech and should not attempt or aim to stifle discussion and debate on historical events. As recommendation, the criminal law, or any laws that create vaguely defined offenses, should not be used to prevent people challenging official versions of events.
We do not expect anything from his appeal because the justice system in Rwanda is independent, especially when the investigation involves politics. Obviously, Rwandan laws reveal injustices that must be eradicated. To address this, Rwanda should urgently implement the recommendations it received during its 2021 Universal Periodic Review to amend its penal code and media laws, ensure the independence of the Rwanda Media Commission in law and practice, and take measures against the legal ambiguity of media regulatory bodies. Rwanda should conduct a comprehensive review of its legal framework, including its genocide ideology and ICT laws, resulting in amendments to laws that are contrary to Rwanda’s regional and international obligations. It goes without saying that nothing will be done because that would contradict their policy.