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Rwandan Journalist Killed in Accident; Advocates Call for Independent Investigation

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FILE - Rwandan police say well-known journalist John Williams Ntwali — pictured here in a screenshot from the Human Rights Watch webpage — was killed in a motorbike accident in Kigali, Rwanda, on Jan. 18, 2021.

Human rights groups and supporters of a well-known Rwandan journalist widely seen as an independent reporter who reported critical stories about the government are calling for a thorough and impartial investigation into his death.

Rwandan police say John Williams Ntwali was killed in a motorbike accident in the capital, Kigali, at about 2:50 a.m. local time Wednesday.

Speaking to Voice of America, traffic police spokesperson Irene Irere said a car hit Ntwali’s motorbike, killing him instantly and injuring the passenger riding with him.

Ntwali was the founder and chief editor of Ireme.net news website and the Pax TV YouTube channel, both of which published mainly investigative stories sometimes viewed as critical of the Rwandan government. Ntwali’s stories focused on human rights issues, government failures, and stories related to the judiciary.

“An investigation into the case is underway as usual when road accidents occur. The outcome will be given to the prosecution for the normal judicial course,” Irere said. He also said that the person who was riding with Ntwali on the motorbike has been detained. The driver of the car, authorities said, is detained at the Kicukiro District Police station in Kigali.

Ntwali’s death, which was not announced until Thursday afternoon, shocked many journalists and politicians, especially those critical of the human rights record of the Rwandan government. Some expressed skepticism and said they want an impartial investigation into his death, suggesting the possible involvement of international expertise.

Fellow journalist Bihibindi Nuhu met with Ntwali the night before his death to discuss the state of independent media in Rwanda. He said that Ntwali seemed nervous.

“He looked cautious and switched off his phone before we started talking,” Nuhu said. “He said phones could not be trusted. He told me that all the doors on which he knocked were closed but he was determined to face life. His death was so sudden.”

Victoire Ingabire, a Rwandan politician and founder of the yet-to-be legally approved Development And Liberty For All, or DALFA, Umurinzi political party, said she was shocked by the news of Ntwali’s death. The government of Rwanda has not given a reason why the DALFA party has not been permitted to officially operate in the country. However, critics say opposition parties face obstacles in getting approval.

Ingabire told VOA that she had scheduled an interview with Williams for Wednesday. However, she says that every time she sent him a message, the message remained unread. On Thursday, she said, the messages were opened, and whoever read them did not reply.

Map showing Kigali, Rwanda.
Map showing Kigali, Rwanda.

“It would be good if the circumstances surrounding his death were clear," she said. "Because it is unclear saying that a well-known person like Ntwali died in an accident and two days go by before people knew about it. It would be good for those in charge to explain it to avoid rumors.”

Lewis Mudge, the Central Africa director for the rights group known as Human Rights Watch, quickly cast doubt on the official police version of Ntwali’s death.

"John Williams Ntwali was a lifeline for many victims of human rights violations, and often the only journalist who dared report on issues of political repression,” Mudge said in a statement posted on Twitter.

“He joins a long list of people who have challenged the government and died in suspicious circumstances. There are many reasons to question the theory of a car accident and it is essential that a prompt, effective investigation, drawing on international expertise, be conducted to determine whether or not he was murdered."

Ntwali was known not to mince words in saying that the future of independent journalism in Rwanda was bleak. He blamed the government for jailing journalists such as Dieudonne Niyonsenga who also covered local politics and critical stories focusing on human rights, and rights activists such as Aimable Karasira and Iryamugwiza Yvonne, who have endured torture and ill-treatment while in detention, according to HRW.

In his 20-year journalism career, the 43-year-old Ntwali had been detained or summoned several times by the Rwanda Police Criminal Investigation Department to answer questions about some of the articles or publications on his media platforms. Ntwali is survived by his wife and one child.

This story originated with VOA’s Central African service.

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