Forbidden Stories
Rwanda Classified

Collision course: An investigation into the death of a journalist hated by Rwandan authorities

In January 2023, Rwandan journalist John Williams Ntwali was killed in a traffic collision. His relentless work documenting human rights violations, the persecution of political opposition and the suppression of the press had made him the subject of hostility from those in power, causing him to fear for his life. Conducted over several months and featuring previously unpublished material, our investigation confronts the volatility of official reports about Ntwali’s death as well as the vagueness of the police investigation and trial that followed.

(Visuel : Mélody Da Fonseca)

Key findings
  • Until the day of his death, John Williams Ntwali repeatedly confided in friends and members of human rights NGOs that he was being tracked and threatened by Rwandan intelligence agencies.
  • Forbidden Stories examined the police and judicial procedures that followed Ntwali’s death, which were obfuscated by a delay in identifying his body, contradictory official statements about the location and time of the fatal crash, and confusing trial proceedings.
  • The troubling circumstances surrounding Ntwali’s death have contributed to the climate of fear and suspicion experienced by journalists and political opponents in Rwanda, which ranks 144th out of 180 on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.

By  Cécile Andrzejewski

May 28, 2024

Samuel Baker Byansi (M28 Investigates) and Christina Schmidt (Die Zeit) contributed to this article.

“I was given ‘cursed promises’ saying that I will end up in jail or dead.” “I can’t go home today because of a car that was following me on the motorcycle I was riding on. Even when I enter an office, upon exiting I see it parked outside. So today it’s parked near my home, its registration number is…”

In January 2022, Rwandan journalist John Williams Ntwali told his exiled colleague Rubens Mukunzi of the constant surveillance he was experiencing in Kigali. “They do all their dirty work at night, throw the dead body wherever they want and come up with their own version,” Ntwali said in messages sent to Mukunzi, referring to Rwandan intelligence agencies. One year later, on the night of January 17, 2023, Ntwali was hit by a car while riding in the passenger seat of a motorcycle taxi—at least, that’s the official story. Now, his messages read like premonitions.

“John had told me he was afraid,” said an anonymous colleague of Ntwali’s, who had spoken with him days before his death. “He said he’d received threats from the intelligence agencies telling him he was going to be assassinated: ‘We’re going to run you over when you’re on your motorcycle.’”

Today in Kigali, at the mere mention of Ntwali’s name or of the alleged accident that cost him his life, faces freeze, silence falls and even the most daring refuse to speak. Take, for instance, the voluble journalist who talked to us for an hour about his career, his profession and the lines never to be crossed in Rwanda. When asked about the circumstances of his colleague’s death, he suddenly grew quiet.

“Is it okay if I don’t answer this question?” he asked, before murmuring, “I told him one day he would get himself killed.”

A message sent by John Williams Ntwali to Carine Kanimba, the daughter of Paul Rusesabagina, about a video dedicated to the judicial repression against her father.

“The voice of the voiceless”

Why was John Williams Ntwali reportedly threatened by the authorities? At 43 years old, he was the editor-in-chief of the newspaper The Chronicles, and more notably, the founder of the YouTube channel PAX TV / IREME News. There, the journalist documented the eviction of inhabitants of a shantytown in Kigali, reported on the judicial persecution of Rwandan political opponents, and followed the trials of his imprisoned colleagues. He became, in the words of La Libre Afrique, “the voice of the voiceless.”

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In November 2022, a few months before his death, Ntwali left on a reporting trip with his colleague Samuel Baker Byansi to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The two journalists were interested in the mysterious deaths of young Rwandan soldiers in the DRC—a sensitive investigation in Rwanda, where the authorities have denied any military involvement with their neighboring country. The pair’s inquiry led to Baker’s exile from Rwanda. (read our article on Rwandan soldiers in the DRC here).

“[Ntwali] was one of the few people to give a voice to those facing human rights violations because of their criticisms toward authorities,” said Clémentine de Montjoye, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “In the months before his death, he told us he was receiving visits from the security services as well as threatening phone calls telling him to toe the line and stop his critical reporting.”

In August 2021, Ntwali was looking into the judicial repression suffered by Rwandan activist Paul Rusesabagina, who saved over 1,000 Tutsis during the 1994 genocide (as portrayed in the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda) and later became a prominent critic of Paul Kagame’s government. It seems Ntwali’s investigation was not well received by Rwandan authorities.

“I’ve gotten threats ordering me not to publish the video and to delete all of the footage,” he wrote to Rusesabagina’s daughter Carine Kanimba.

The intersection where the accident could have taken place, according to the verdict. (Credit : Forbidden Stories)

Thirteen days of detention before “the prosecution’s case unraveled”

In a terrible sort of irony, Ntwali also investigated suspicious car accidents throughout his career, landing him in trouble with the authorities. First, he covered the 2015 death of Assinapol Rwigara, a wealthy Rwandan businessman who had financed Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) party in the 1990s. His car was allegedly hit by a truck, but his family never believed the official story. In May, his daughter Diane, who denounced the “assassination,” announced her intention to run in the Rwandan presidential elections scheduled for July 2024.

A year after this investigation, Ntwali spent 13 days in detention, accused of raping a minor. However, this was “before the prosecution’s case unraveled, reinforcing the theory that Ntwali’s criticisms of those in power had gotten him framed,” reported RSF. Upon his release, Ntwali denied the accusations made against him. 

According to him, his arrest was linked to his coverage of the Rwigara crash—work that had already made him the subject of intimidation. A few weeks before his death, Ntwali investigated another suspicious car accident, this one involving a bar owner. A friend of his told us Ntwali was convinced it had been staged.

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In this atmosphere of persistent fear and suspicion, the official version of events concerning Ntwali’s death is unconvincing. There have been delays in identifying the body, variations in official statements about the location of the accident, differences in the alleged time of death and general confusion surrounding the trial. So, for six months, 17 media outlets coordinated by Forbidden Stories undertook the Rwanda Classified project, an investigation into what really happened to John Williams Ntwali. The Rwandan government did not respond to our questions.

In 2022, John Williams Ntwali described to Al Jazeera the pressure he was under

A few hours before his death, the journalist relayed his fears to two people we were able to find. For security reasons, neither of these witnesses can be named. Ntwali told his confidants that he was being followed and that Rwanda’s National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) was closing in on him. He shared information he had obtained from a police source that had led him to believe he could be eliminated at any moment.

Officially, Ntwali died on the night of January 17, 2023. However, his death was not announced by The Chronicles until the end of the day on January 19. This delay,  framed by authorities as the length of time necessary to identify the body, raises questions since the journalist was known to both the general public and the Rwandan police. 

“Ntwali had no identification on him,” said investigators by way of justification. But that’s not what one of the last people to see him alive told us. According to this witness, on his final evening, Ntwali joked sadly about the authorities’ refusal to issue him a passport, waving his ID card as the only identification at his disposal.

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Inconsistencies in the location and time of the crash

The location of the crash also varies in official reports. In an initial statement, a traffic police spokesperson announced that Ntwali had died in Kimihurura, a bustling central neighborhood in Kigali where surveillance cameras could have captured the collision. However, the verdict in the trial of the motorist responsible for Ntwali’s death mentions another location. 

According to this document, although the driver of the taxi that hit the motorcycle may have come from Kimihurura, the crash happened elsewhere, in the neighboring district of Kicukiro. In court, the driver claimed he had seen a police checkpoint in the distance, which he’d wanted to avoid. He said he’d then quickly changed directions and hit the motorcycle taxi, killing Ntwali and injuring the bike’s driver.

The intersection where the accident could have taken place, according to the verdict. (Credit : Forbidden Stories)

Boniface Rutikanga, the spokesperson of the Rwanda National Police, wasn’t on duty at the time of the crash. Today, he too struggles to explain the confusion surrounding the location of Ntwali’s death.

“When an accident happens, it’s something very visible. You can’t fake it…. It’s not easy to confuse the scene of an accident.” Nonetheless, he insists upon the professionalism of investigators and hopes the 86 international organizations — among them, Amnesty International, the Federation of African Journalists or the Committee to Protect Journalists — calling for an independent investigation will “respect [the] sovereignty” of Rwanda.

The time of the collision has also varied between official statements. While the police initially announced that it had taken place at 2:50 a.m. on January 18, the trial verdict states the crash actually occurred at 3:20 a.m. In any case, these slightly different times don’t at all correspond with the final message Ntwali sent to his wife that night: in the only interview she has given to the press, she said she received his last message at 8:28 p.m. on January 17. It simply states that he was on a motorcycle. Then, Ntwali’s wife says, his phone went dead.

What was Ntwali doing out on a motorcycle taxi so late? That’s the question on the mind of Frank Habineza, a member of the Rwandan parliament from the Democratic Green Party. A close friend of Ntwali’s, he attended his funeral, as many opposition figures did. Now a presidential candidate, Habineza spoke reservedly about the security measures essential to the survival of critics in Rwanda.

“I don’t blame my friend, but we must be careful. He had sensitive information, so he shouldn’t have taken a motorbike. Ntwali would be out at 2 or 3 in the morning, and you never know what might happen at night,” he said, eyes downcast. “Sometimes, we ignore warnings because we’ve grown used to them.”

John Williams Ntwali (Credit : private)

A trial behind closed doors?

As for the others involved in the crash, it’s difficult to know more. A week afterward, a government spokesperson announced that the driver of the motorcycle taxi, Alex N., was still hospitalized. But, in the trial verdict, only “minor injuries” were mentioned. When contacted about the circumstances of the collision, Nyagakenke responded, “It’s not me you should be asking—it’s the institutions.” Our numerous requests for more information went unanswered.

The motorist who caused the accident, Moïse Emmanuel Bagirishya, was fined 1 million Rwandan francs (about 700 euros) for manslaughter and unintentional injury. Despite our several attempts to get in contact, he never picked up his phone, although his number appears in the written version of the verdict.

The trial for the crash, which took place on January 31, 2023, and whose verdict was made public on February 7, did not clear up the many questions surrounding Ntwali’s death. On the contrary, the circumstances surrounding the proceedings only muddied the waters further.

Various journalists covering the case explained that they had not been informed of the date of the trial and were consequently unable to attend. They allege that they were summoned only a week later for the reading of the verdict, during which the accused was absent. AFP confirmed that “the proceedings were not open to the public, with the exception of the verdict reading.”

We did speak with two people who claimed to have attended the trial. The first was Me Hilarie Mukamazimpaka, the lawyer of the taxi driver. She explained that the trial had been ordinary and without any notable disturbances. The second was Vincent Gasana, a journalist known for his praise of Rwandan authorities. Contrary to reports that the trial had been closed to the public, he described a “small courtroom…so packed with spectators that some had no choice but to listen through the windows.”

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Journalists assassinated, arrested or forced into exile

In 2021, Ntwali was recorded making these premonitory remarks: “We don’t know what will happen to us, but we do know that one day, something will catch us off guard.” In “Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship” (Bloomsbury, 2016), reporter Anjan Sundaram gives an account of the press controlled by Rwanda. He lists 60 cases of journalists “facing hardships after criticizing the government” between 1995 and 2014, their experiences ranging from forced exile to arrest to assassination. 

In 2024, the country ranked 144th out of 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index. “In recent years, journalists who have tried to disseminate sensitive or critical information via online media, particularly YouTube, have been heavily condemned,” said the organization.

In November 2021, the names of seven YouTube-based journalists appeared on a list published by an anonymous Twitter account, which accused them of “minimizing the genocide against the Tutsi” or wanting to “sow chaos in public opinion.” Five of the names were marked with a red cross: YouTubers who had already been imprisoned. The two remaining names were those of Ntwali and a journalist who has since left the country. According to a Belgian judicial investigation, this anonymous account belonged to Olivier Nduhungirehe, the current Rwandan ambassador to the Netherlands. When contacted, he did not respond to our questions. 

In December 2021, as reported by La Libre Afrique, Ntwali summarized, “When you’re an independent journalist in Rwanda, in the truest sense of the word, you are a candidate for prison.” Or worse.

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