Reporters Without Borders is worried by the deteriorating environment for the media in Rwanda in recent weeks. In the past few weeks, a journalist has been arrested, at least two others have fled abroad, and a news website has been hacked. While apparently not linked, these events have helped to fuel a climate of fear and self-censorship among media personnel.
Cassien Ntamuhanga, a journalist at the Christian radio station Amazing Grace, appeared at a trial hearing in Kigali on 24 April on charges of endangering state security, complicity in terrorism, and treason. Three other defendants including the very popular singer, Kizito Mihigo, appeared with him in court.
Colleagues say Ntamuhanga never had any problems until he was reported missing on 7 April. The police announced on 14 April that he was in their custody without saying where or when he was arrested, leading the Rwanda Media Commission to assume he was held illegally from 7 to 14 April.
Nonetheless, the RMC subsequently reported on 17 April that his arrest was not linked to his work as a journalist. The prosecutor’s office asked the court to keep Ntamuhura and the other defendants in detention until another hearing scheduled for today.
The US State Department has asked the Rwandan authorities to respect media freedom and ensure that Ntamuhanga, Mihigo and the other defendants get “minimum fair trial guarantees.” It also stressed the important of “allowing for freedom of expression in a democratic society.”
Reporters Without Borders has meanwhile learned that at least two other journalists have had to flee the country in recent weeks.
Stanley Gatera, the editor of the independent news website Umusingi, was arrested on April 17 on charges of attempted extortion. According to the information obtained by Reporters Without Borders, he was in a café when a person approached him and slipped an envelope in his pocket, whereupon three plainclothes policemen immediately arrested him and took him to the police station.
After holding him for six hours, the police escorted him to his home where a policeman told him a plan was afoot to murder him and his family. The journalist fled the country the next day. He is currently in exile.
Gatera said the threats and intimidation could be linked to an interview he gave to Al-Jazeera’s “People and Power” programme in March in which he talked about the difficulties for journalists working in Rwanda. He previously served a one-year jail sentence in 2012 on charges of creating divisions and “gender-based discrimination”.
His brother, Nelson Gatsimbazi, Umusingi’s founder, fled the country in 2011, when he was also prosecuted on a charge of “creating divisions.”
The other journalist to flee in the past few weeks is Eric Udahemuka, who left the country with his family on 1 April, a week before the ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide.
After being followed, threatened, attacked, robbed and subjected to other kinds of harassment since 2012, it seems a series of articles in the newspaper Isimbi in January and March prompted an increase in the intimidation.
He told Reporters Without Borders that two men who had been following him for months warned him that he could be killed at any moment because of his articles criticizing the Rwandese government.
Finally, the investigative news website Ireme has been the victim of a cyber-attack since 15 April, when hackers replaced its usual content with outrageous material and doctored photos relating to the Mihigo case.
The website’s editor, John Williams Ntwali, who was in Uganda when it was hacked, reacted immediately on social networks, explaining that he has lost control of the site and disowning the content currently displayed.
On his return to Rwanda, he wrote to the police, the prosecutor’s office and the Rwanda Media Commission denying rumours that he was on the run in Uganda or in any way responsible for the current content, as he was very concerned about the possibility that the authorities would believe the rumours.
Asked who he thought was behind the hacking of Ireme, he told Reporters Without Borders that he ruled out no possibilities but suspected it was designed to punish the site for being outspoken.
Ruled by a government that often violates the public’s right to information, Rwanda is ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.