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Rwandan journalist John Williams Ntwali – who many believed was the last remaining independent journalist in the country – died last week. He was apparently killed in a road accident in the country’s capital, Kigali, in the early hours of 18 January 2023. He was 43 years old, and leaves behind a wife and child.
It has been reported that a speeding vehicle crashed into the motorcycle he was riding as a passenger. Police spokesman John Bosco Cabera told Reuters that Ntwali was the sole fatality.
Ntwali, who was a leading investigative journalist and editor of the Rwandan-based news publication The Chronicles, was one of the few journalists who was openly critical of Paul Kagame, who became president of Rwanda in 2000. Several journalists and commentators are currently imprisoned under Kagame’s regime.
Ntwali was regularly threatened as a journalist exposing human rights abuses in Rwanda.
“I’m focused on justice, human rights, and advocacy. I know those three areas are risky here in Rwanda, but I’m committed to [them],” he told Al Jazeera. He also spoke about how death threats were common as part of his work.
There were widespread tributes to Ntwali’s death after it was announced.
The Rwanda Journalists Association said: “We are saddened by the death of journalist John Williams Ntwali this week in a road accident. Our condolences go out to his family, the wider media community and friends and relatives. May God rest in peace.”
MP and president of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, Frank Habineza, wrote: “It is with great sadness that we share the tragic news of the death of journalist John Williams, who died in an accident. We are patient with his family. God bless you. Our sincere condolences. May his soul rest in eternal glory.”
As the authorities have yet to produce any reports or evidence from Ntwali’s fatal accident, Lewis Mudge, Central African Director at Human Rights Watch, wrote that he not only dared to report about political repression but that “he joins a long list of people who have challenged the government and died in suspicious circumstances.”
The Human Rights Foundation said that his death is considered suspicious as he was in “the regime’s crosshairs for his journalistic work.”
There have also been calls for an independent enquiry into Ntwali’s death, with Ntwali’s family and friends requesting an independent international investigation. Angela Quintal, Africa programme coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said Ntwali will be mourned and also called for “a transparent, comprehensive, and credible accounting of the circumstances that led to his death.” Index join in these calls for accountability.
Ntwali’s funeral was held in the Gacurabwenge sector of the Kamonyi district, Rwanda, on 22 January 2023.
Rwanda was ranked 136 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders 2022 World Press Freedom Index. According to the organisation, media owners must pledge allegiance to the government, and methods such as espionage, surveillance, arrest and forced disappearance is used in the county to prevent journalists from working freely. It also says that arbitrary arrests and detention of journalists have increased in recent years.
Ntwali’s death comes one year ahead of Rwanda going to the polls. Last summer Kagame said that he planned to run again in 2024, seeking his fourth term in office.
“I would consider running for another 20 years. I have no problem with that. Elections are about people choosing,” he told France 24. In 2017, Kagame reportedly won 99% of the vote, leading to cries of foul-play. Whether Ntwali’s death was suspicious or not, his death leaves a huge hole in Rwanda’s media landscape. Who is now left to speak out against Kagame?
More than a year after Chad’s former president was killed in battle, the central African country remains in turmoil and freedom of expression remains under attack.
Idriss Déby Itno was killed in April 2021 on the battlefront between government troops and rebels from the Front for Change and Concord in the north of the country. His death was announced just a day after provisional results from the 11th April president election showed he had won re-election.
The election result was widely seen as dubious. Leading opposition figure Saleh Kebzabo had withdrawn from the elections after family members of another candidate were killed during a deadly shootout.
Chad has been under the increasingly authoritarian grip of Idriss Déby Itno since 1990 when he seized power in a coup.
In March 2018, Déby had implemented a social media ban following widespread public protests against constitutional changes that would have allowed him to rule until 2033. The ban was lifted only 16 months later.
The country has been the target of regular internet shutdowns by the government. The KeepItOn coalition says there were more than 900 days of internet shutdowns, including throttling of internet speeds, total internet blackouts as well as the social media blocks, between 2016 and 2021.
After Déby’s death, the military took control, dissolving parliament and putting a transitional military council (TMC) in charge of the country under the leadership of Déby’s son Mahamat.
The council promised free and democratic elections within 18 months, following a national reconciliation dialogue that would involve parties from all sides.
In September, the TMC appointed a 93-member national transitional council to perform the functions of government. However, some prominent members of Wakit Tama, a coalition of human rights groups and opposition figures, who had denounced the coup were excluded for this.
That process has since moved slowly, and free and fair elections look unlikely any time soon. An inability to agree on who should be involved in the council and any national reconciliation dialogue has slowed the process to a crawl, although some of the parties are now in the Qatari capital Doha taking part in what is being called a pre-dialogue, a process that has already lasted two months.
The transition to fair and free elections has now been thrown into even greater disarray after a number of civil society leaders were detained during protests on 14th May organised by Wakit Tama.
During the protests, several symbols of France’s colonial power, including a number of Total petrol stations, were attacked and policemen injured. Wakit Tama and the four arrested have denied any involvement in the violence.
The four arrested were Gounoung Vaima Gan Fare, secretary general of the Union des Syndicats du Tchad, Youssouf Korom Ahmat, secretary general of the Syndicat des commercants fournisseurs du Tchad, Koudé Mbainaissem, a lawyer and president of the Association for Freedom of Expression, as well as Wakit Tama coordinator Max Loalngar.
The protests were intended to highlight human rights violations in the country, call for the inclusion of human rights defenders in the transition and oppose a continuing French military presence in Chad.
Opposition leader Saleh Kebzabo said the protests threatened the process of reconciliation.
Three days after the protests he tweeted, “In Doha, there is a Chad in miniature where nearly 200 Chadians have been engaged in a debate for two months to participate in the [national reconciliation dialogue]. All Chadians are waiting for this unique moment for a real rebuilding of the country, and I believe it is a unique opportunity.”
“During this time, we learn that other Chadians are preparing the [dialogue] in their own way by marches to ransack and loot, against the French presence in Chad. This is a false debate that risks hiding all our real problems, which are unfortunately many.”
The four are currently being detained at the high security Mossoro prison and will face a court hearing on 6th June, although none has yet been charged with any offence. Front Line Defenders believes that they are being targeted “solely as a result of their legitimate and peaceful work in defence of human rights”. Human Rights Watch calls the detentions “politically motivated”.
Despite the pre-dialogue in Doha, the government has now postponed the main dialogue on a transition to democracy to some unspecified date in the future. The omens are not good.
Uganda’s natural resources base, one of the richest and most diverse in Africa, continues to be degraded, jeopardising both individual livelihoods and the country’s economic development.
Evidence from the UN Environment Programme reveals that its forests, home to several endangered or soon-to-be extinct animal and plant species, are being mercilessly ravaged by poachers, illegal charcoal traders and loggers, and greedy investors.
Overfishing in the country’s lakes and rivers is rife. Its wetlands are being cleared for agricultural use and the rate of forest cover loss stands at 2.6 per cent annually, according to independent sources.
As part of efforts to ensure that the east African nation’s natural resources are effectively managed and protected, a group of environmental activists has gone to war to protect these natural wonders from bleeding further.
“Environmental activism in Uganda is not a safe identity – it’s a hostile and fragile environment,” William Amanzuru, team leader at Friends of Zoka, told Index.
“Activists are seen as fronting foreign views and opinions, enemies of the state and enemies of development.”
Amanzuru, who won the EU Human Rights Defenders Award in 2019, says environmental abuse in Uganda is highly militarised, so any intervention for nature conservation seems like a battlefield in a highly sophisticated war.
“You directly deal with our finest military elite who run the show because of the huge profits gained from it,” he said. “We are always being followed by state and non-state actors and those involved in the depletion of natural resources like the Zoka Central Forest Reserve.”
Amanzuru said he had received threatening phone calls and had been intimidated by government and local police officials. “My phone is always tapped,” he added.
Anthony Masake, programme officer at Chapter Four Uganda, a human rights organisation, said environmental human rights defenders in Uganda were increasingly operating in a hostile environment.
“They repeatedly face reprisal attacks in the form of arbitrary arrests and detention, character assassination, being labelled traitors, assaults, intimidation and isolation, among others,” he said.
Masake added that illegal loggers and charcoal dealers, land grabbers and corporations often connived with their government backers to shield them from the law and accountability.
“Politicians, police officers and local leaders have often been cited in incidents of reprisal attacks against environmental defenders in Adjumani, Hoima and other districts,” he said.
Uganda’s environmental battlefields are located in rural and remote areas where life and time seem to stop – far from the public eye and the noise and the vibe of big cities.
“The terrain has exposed them to easy targeting because the operation areas are far removed from urban areas where they would be able to access quick and competent legal services,” said Masake.
“The rise of incidents of corruption, abuse of office, lack of accountability for abusers and deterioration of the state and rule of law has further emboldened perpetrators to continue attacking environmental defenders because they know they can get away with it.”
As watchdogs of society, journalists who attempt to expose environmental crimes and abuse are also often the victims of sheer brutality and violence, according to several sources who spoke to Index.
“I deplore the way [president Yoweri] Museveni’s security forces ill-treat journalists, especially environmental journalists,” said one. “They have done nothing wrong. All they do is to tell the nation and the world that our natural resources are in danger of being extinct if we do not trade carefully. Is that a crime?”
The journalist, who claimed to fear Ugandan security forces and intelligence services “more than God”, spoke only on condition of anonymity.
The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its partners, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and the World Organisation Against Torture, have vehemently and repeatedly condemned the arrest and arbitrary detention of environmental journalists.
Venex Watebawa and Joshua Mutale, the team leader and head of programmes at Water and Environment Media Network (Wemnet), were recently arrested in Hoima, in western Uganda, on their way to attend a radio talkshow at Spice FM.
The FIDH reported that they were supposed to discuss the risks and dangers of sugarcane growing projects in the Bugoma forest and of allowing oil activities in critical biodiversity areas including rivers, lakes, national parks, forests and wetlands.
Home to more than 600 chimpanzees and endangered bird species, including African grey parrots, Bugoma is a tropical rainforest which was declared as a nature reserve in 1932.
Following the arrest of Wemnet members, all hell broke loose when security forces arrested more environmental activists who went to the police station to negotiate the release of Watebawa and Mutale.
The arrests, which are believed to have been called for by Hoima Sugar, the company decimating the Bugoma forest to convert it into a sugarcane plantation, were a bitter pill to swallow. (Index asked Hoima Sugar to comment on these allegations but received no response.)
“Environment stories are so delicate because the people behind the destruction of the environment are people with a lot of money, who are well connected and have a lot of influence,” Watebawa told Index.
He slammed the National Environment Management Authority – which is mandated to oversee conservation efforts – for having been influenced by Hoima Sugar.
“To our surprise, it gave a report in a record time of two weeks to clear the below-bare-minimum-standard environmental impact assessment report to clear 22 square miles of land in a sensitive and fragile ecosystem,” he said.
“The deployment of paramilitary agencies to give sanctuary to the destroyers of the forest speaks volumes of the government’s commitment to protect the environment.”
Journalists who have attempted to get anywhere near the Bugoma central forests have been harassed or faced the wrath of the army.
“These incidents have demotivated and scared us,” said Watebawa. “Between March and June, two of our members lost their cameras and laptops. Our communications officer, Samuel Kayiwa, was trailed, his car broken into in Kajjasi, and his gear stolen.”
In another incident targeting the environmental media, Wemnet reported that someone broke into the house of Agnes Nantambi, a journalist working for New Vision, after midnight, forcing her to surrender her laptop and camera.
Amanzuru was arrested in February after an incident in which locals impounded a Kampala-bound truck ferrying illegal charcoal. He claimed that the military provided protection for those investing in illegal logging, illegal timber harvesting and the commercial charcoal trade.
He said the country’s environment sector was highly politicised, with the government drawing a lot of illicit money from the abuse of natural resources.
“Politicians trade in environmental abuse because this is an unmonitored trade … They make quick money for their political sustainability.”
And as the Museveni government’s aggression towards environmental activists increases day by day, human rights organisations have vowed to fight and to die with their boots on.
Amanzuru’s arrest attracted the attention of the EU ambassador to Uganda, who wrote to environment minister Beatrice Anywar Atim to request a fair and speedy trial.
Entities offering support include the Defenders’ Protection Initiative, Chapter Four Uganda and the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders in Uganda.
But despite the grim outlook, Watebawa remains optimistic about the future of environmental activism.
He says society is stronger, more organised and more determined than ever, and the media persistently exposes environmental abuse.
He believes all responsible citizens must challenge the impunity to which environmental human rights defenders so often fall victim because the environment, ultimately, is a shared resource.
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