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In Rwanda, ranked 156e in 180 countries for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders, more and more journalists and dissidents are turning to YouTube. Not without risk. In 2021, at least four people using the video platform to criticize the government were arrested.
Among them, Théoneste Nsengimana, co-founder of the Umubavu TV channel, was arrested on October 13 on the eve of a program on political prisoners in which he had planned to invite the opponent Victoire Ingabire. He is accused of spreading false rumors. On November 11, Dieudonné Niyonsenga, owner of the Ishema TV channel, was arrested after being sentenced in second instance to seven years in prison by the High Court in Kigali for facts dating back to 2020. He was notably accused. use of forgery and usurpation of office for having worked without a press card.
Renowned youtuber journalist, John Williams Ntwali deciphers for The World Africa this new space for media expression and its difficulties. Passed by several Rwandan radio stations and former editor-in-chief of the online newspaper When, Mr. Ntwali set up his own website in the early 2010s, where he became known for his critical reporting of the authorities. Less than a year ago, he launched a YouTube channel, Pax TV-Ireme News, where he claims to invite “All Rwandans without exception”, in particular opponents rarely heard in public space.
In recent years, more Rwandan journalists and government critics have turned to YouTube. Why ?
In a very constrained context for press freedom, YouTube has several advantages. It is first of all a space where we can talk about everything, without censorship, since it is impossible for the authorities to block a YouTube channel, as they do for some local websites. Second, content stays online, unlike radio or TV: it can be watched again at any time and shared more easily. And then it is a real platform for exchange, since there are the comments, which allow to initiate discussions and to know how your content is received.
What are the main difficulties of Rwandan Youtuber journalists?
First, there is obviously the financial aspect. It is difficult, outside of an editorial office, to get a good quality camera and to do an investigation.
But fundamentally, it is very difficult to have access to the sources of information that we need. Because within authorities, many say that YouTubers are unethical and unreliable. We are sometimes accused of making the bed of the opposition or even of being “negative forces”. In Rwanda, these are very serious accusations. Many Youtuber journalists have therefore decided to give up.
The third big challenge is the constant threats and insults. They don’t come directly from the authorities, but rather from trolls or fake social media accounts. They can launch a campaign against a person and damage their image to such an extent that public opinion will start to think that they are dangerous for society. It then becomes easy to stop it.
In the past year, Rwandan authorities have arrested, prosecuted or convicted at least four people using YouTube to criticize the government. What do you think of these arrests? Why now ?
The situation is becoming more tense as we approach the 2024 presidential election and the possibility of a fourth term for Paul Kagame. So the authorities are starting to silence all potential critical voices. In addition, the legal context has changed. In the early 2000s, when a journalist or dissident was arrested, the charges matched his writing, his record, and the charges were based on a crime committed or suspected. Today, this is no longer the case. Journalists or government critics can be accused of rape, genocide ideology, negationism, divisionism or other, in fabricated files.
You have been doing journalism in Rwanda for over twenty years. How has the media landscape evolved since you started?
In the beginning, between 2000 and 2003, the press was relatively free and there was no censorship. Then that started to change because we entered a new political era with the first term of President Paul Kagame, which began in August 2003. A battle then ensued for media freedom. It has become difficult to talk about those close to the president, the ruling party [le Front patriotique rwandais], police and army.
Another turning point took place during the President’s second term, between 2010 and 2017. In 2010, we saw the extinction of popular critical newspapers, such as Morning and Spokesperson. In 2015, there was the referendum to change the Constitution and allow Paul Kagame to run for a third term. By this time, many independent journalists had already fled the country. From there, more and more subjects became taboo : justice, but also the country’s economic situation or even Rwanda’s tense diplomatic relations with its neighbors.
Are there effective bodies for the protection of journalists in Rwanda?
No there is not. In theory, this should be the role of the Rwandan Media Commission [RMC, une instance de régulation officiellement indépendante]. But so far, it has not provided us with any support other than issuing press cards. Most of the time, she mainly warns journalists if they deviate from official guidelines. There is the Association of Rwandan Journalists, but its role is limited to skills development and a bit of advocacy. She doesn’t really have a grip on court records.
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“In Rwanda, YouTuber journalists face incessant threats”