- The editor of 'Umuseso', Rwanda's only independent newspaper, was acquitted today on a criminal charge of ethnic "divisionism," but convicted of defamation for a story that raised questions about the Rwandan Parliament's Vice President. The editor avoided a prison sentence and was given a rather symbolic fine.
Charles Kabonero averted a prison sentence, but was ordered to pay a fine of 8,500 Rwandan francs (US$ 15) and symbolic damages of 1 franc to parliamentary Vice President Denis Polisi.
The sentencing was met with great local and international interest as a test case on press freedom in Rwanda. A large number of global press freedom and human rights groups had demanded the acquittal of Mr Kabonero's case. Consequently, the court's rejection of "divisionism" charges was welcomed today.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in a press release today welcomed word that Mr Kabonero will not face prison, but said criminal prosecution is simply unjustified for independent reporting on matters of public interest. "Governments should never use criminal laws to suppress critical reporting," CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said.
Also the Paris-based group Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) today welcomed a Kigali court's decision to not imprison the 'Umuseso' editor. "We hope that Denis Polisi will not appeal and we call for 'Umuseso' to henceforth be allowed to operate in peace," RSF said in a statement.
Noting that the court's verdict was hailed by the many news media covering the trial and by the weekly's supporters, RSF further voiced the hope that it would open the way for reform of the press code, saying this was "essential for the existence of a free press in Rwanda." The French group has so far been the strongest criticiser of the Rwandan government's treatment of the independent media.
Mr Kabonero himself had considered the libel charge to be the more serious of the two charges brought against him. The court sentenced him to pay a symbolic fine in this case. The Rwandan editor therefore was relatively satisfied with the sentence.
The charges against the 'Umuseso' editor had gathered much interest because it threatened to close down the last remnant of an independent press in Rwanda. The prosecution had asked for a prison sentence of four years in addition to a hefty fine.
This was the first criminal case against a news outlet to go to trial since President Paul Kagame took power in 1994, but the government has long intimidated independent journalists through other means, prompting several to flee the country in fear for their lives. 'Umuseso' thus has been the only independent media surviving these rough circumstances.
The charges against 'Umuseso' stemmed from an August article in the Kinyarwanda-language weekly that accused Mr Polisi of abuse of power. The article also reported speculation about Mr Polisi's political aspirations, and divisions in the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front.
'Umuseso' staff members say they were harassed and threatened after the article appeared. Mr Kabonero, who also directs parent company of 'Umuseso', the Rwanda Independent Media Group (RIMEG), was forced into hiding by the threats for about 10 days.
Rwandan authorities have frequently targeted 'Umuseso' in the past. Robert Sebufirira, former managing editor of the newspaper, and Elly Macdowell Kalisa, the former deputy editor, fled Rwanda in February after getting a series of death threats they believe came from senior members of the government security services. The threats followed articles in 'Umuseso' on alleged corruption by senior officials.
Another former editor, Ismail Mbonigaba, was imprisoned for more than a month in January 2003 and charged with "inciting division and discrimination" for reporting that former Prime Minister Faustin Twagarimungu would mount an electoral challenge to President Kagame. Mr Mbonigaba, who was never tried, later fled the country after getting death threats.
In May 2001, John Mugabi, editor of the English-language newspaper 'Rwanda Newsline', which gave rise to 'Umuseso', sought asylum abroad after being threatened over articles on the Rwandan military's resource exploitation in eastern Congo (DRC).
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