Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the use of trumped-up charges in an attempt to intimidate John William Ntwali, an investigative reporter and editor of the Ireme news website, who was released provisionally yesterday after being held by the police for 13 days.
Arrested on 28 January, Ntwali was initially accused of raping a minor but the case subsequently unravelled, reinforcing the impression that the charge was fabricated because his reporting is critical of the government.
It emerged that the alleged rape victim, arrested at the same time as Ntwali, was in fact 20 years old and showed no signs of violence, leaving the prosecutor with no choice but to reduce the charge to indecent exposure. Although vaguely defined in Rwanda's criminal code, the charge carries a possible sentence of 2 to 5 years in prison.
"We are relieved by Ntwali's release but we continue to be concerned about the charge he is facing," said Clea Kahn-Sriber, the head of RSF's Africa desk. "The prosecutor's case is gradually evaporating, going from rape of a minor to consensual physical contact with an adult woman. This gives the impression it was trumped-up in order to intimidate this journalist. We urge the authorities to drop all charges against him."
Ntwali's investigative website Ireme, which often carry stories that reflect badly on President Paul Kagame's government, was the victim of a cyber-attack in April 2014. A second version of the site, created to circumvent the blocking, has also been rendered inaccessible.
Interviewed by Radio France Internationale, Ntwali denounced the charges and said he had been threatened in connection with his coverage of the suspicious death of Assinapol Rwigara, a former ruling party official who was killed when his car collided with a truck in Kigali in February 2015. His family insists that it was not an accident.
The media are not free in Rwanda and are subject to constant harassment. The premises of East African, a newspaper owned by Kenya's Nation Media Group, were raided by armed police on 3 February. The computers and hard disks of two journalists were seized and Yvan Mushika, a reporter who often covers sensitive stories, was arrested and questioned for five hours at a police station.
Rwanda is ranked 161st out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.