Editor acquitted of “divisionism,” convicted of defamation

New York, November 23, 2004—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 parliament’s vice president. 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 Committee to Protect Journalists welcomed word that 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.

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.

The charges stemmed from an August article in the Kinyarwanda-language weekly that accused Polisi of abuse of power. The article also reported speculation about 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. Kabonero, who also directs Umuseso‘s parent company, 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 Kagame. Mbonigaba, who was never tried, later fled the country after getting death threats. In May 2001, John Mugabi, editor of 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.