NEW YORK, 31 March 2021 – Rwandan authorities should stop harassing, immediately release, and drop all charges against YouTube commentators and bloggers, a rights group has said.
The victims are facing abusive prosecutions that violate freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch (HRW) alleges in a new report.
The New York-based group said at least eight people reporting or commenting on current affairs on YouTube over the past year have been arrested, threatened, or prosecuted in Rwanda.
HRW says it interviewed seven Rwandan commentators, bloggers, and journalists, and nine other witnesses, family members, or sources with direct knowledge of the cases between February and March 2021.
Human Rights Watch says that it has withheld identifying information to protect sources from retaliation by authorities.
Researchers for the rights group also reviewed laws, trial documents, public speeches, and social media posts relating to the cases – an exhaustive list of which is not provided by this latest report from HRW.
The victims, according to HRW, include a poet who has been missing since last February 7 after publishing his poems on YouTube.
The 31-year-old singer and poet, Innocent Bahati, was reported missing to the Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB), two days after he was last seen in Nyanza, Southern Province.
His poems have focused on social issues such as growing poverty or criticism of the COVID-19 lockdowns.
His disappearance should be treated as suspicious, Human Rights Watch said.
Other bloggers detained or arrested in the last year include Yvonne Idamange, an online commentator who has also discussed growing poverty in Rwanda and criticized the lockdown.
They include Agnes Uwimana Nkusi, editor of Umarabyo news site and YouTube channel, who was detained for several hours after recording one of Idamange’s pretrial hearings.
Valentin Muhirwa and David Byiringiro, who work as bloggers with Afrimax TV, were arrested, detained, and released 12 days later after they distributed food to people they interviewed and who said they were going hungry.
In April 2020, police arrested four bloggers and one driver working with Rwandan YouTube channels that reported on the impact of the COVID-19 guidelines on vulnerable populations.
The arrests appeared retaliatory, and charges were brought against three of them, HRW writes.
Authorities should also open credible, independent, and transparent investigations into suspicious deaths and disappearances of critics, opposition members, civil society actors, and journalists, and prosecute those responsible, HRW adds.
“Rwanda’s track record of intolerance and abusive reprisals against critics raises serious questions regarding the safety of a new generation of bloggers and commentators,” said Lewish Mudge, Central Africa director at HRW.
“The Commonwealth should not turn a blind eye to the repression of fundamental democratic guarantees and should press Rwandan authorities to introduce much-needed reforms to protect free speech,” the HRW statement reads in part.
Rwanda is preparing to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in June 2021.
The Rwandan government failed to respond to a March 19, 2021 letter from HRW requesting information on what Kigali plans to do to address violations of the right to freedom of expression.
“Threats by ruling party or government officials and fear of prosecution have created an environment that can only be described as hostile to free speech and demanding self-censorship,” HRW states in the report.