Independent newspaper editor tried on criminal charges

New York, November 16, 2004—The editor of Umuseso, a Rwandan language independent weekly, was tried today on criminal charges of defamation and “divisionism” in connection with an article that accused parliamentary Vice President Denis Polisi of plotting to seize power. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the trial, saying journalists should not be criminally prosecuted for reporting critically about government officials.

A verdict is expected next week following the one-day trial of Editor Charles Kabonero, who is also director of the Rwanda Independent Media Group (RIMEG), the newspaper’s owner. The prosecution asked for a prison sentence of four years and a fine of 300,000 Rwandan francs (about US$526), according to local journalists.

Polisi filed a criminal complaint after Umuseso reported speculation about his political aspirations and divisions in the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front. Umuseso staff members say they were also harassed and threatened after the August article appeared, prompting Kabonero to go into hiding for about 10 days.

“We are deeply disturbed by the unjustified threat of imprisonment that hangs over our colleague, Charles Kabonero,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “Governments should not use criminal laws to suppress critical reporting.”

Rwandan authorities have frequently targeted Umuseso, the country’s sole independent newspaper. 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 run against President Paul Kagame in elections. Mbonigaba was never tried. 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.