Rwandan newspaper editor flees, publication suspended

New York, March 21, 2008—The founder and editor of the private bimonthly newspaper Umuco went into hiding Tuesday, a day before a police raid on his residence in Kigali. A police statement said Bonaventure Bizumuremyi faces prosecution on defamation charges for “insulting the president.” Police spokesman Willy Higiro made an announcement over Radio Rwanda on Thursday calling on citizens to help security services track down Bizumuremyi, according to local news reports.

Local journalists said six police cars surrounded Bizumuremyi’s home in central Kigali late Wednesday as police seized documents, compact discs, and mobile phones. Bizumuremyi’s mother and sister were picked up from their home and questioned for 40 minutes regarding Bizumuremyi’s whereabouts.

The defamation charges stem from three articles in the March 12 edition of the Kinyarwanda-language paper that were critical of national leaders. A two-page editorial claimed that President Paul Kagame’s days in office were numbered due to recent genocide indictments issued by a Spanish judge against 40 Rwandan Defense Force officers. The editorial claimed Kagame would face an international criminal tribunal, be forced to live in exile, or commit suicide as did Adolf Hitler. The article carried a picture of Kagame and the German dictator side by side. The other pieces criticized senior military officials and the alleged roles of ruling party members in the deaths of Spanish priests.

“We understand why these remarks were deeply offensive to President Kagame, but political leaders must tolerate even harsh criticism,” said Joel Simon, CPJ executive director. “The government should not be bringing criminal action.”

The High Press Council, a quasi-government media regulatory entity, has suspended Bizumuremyi’s press card for six months and recommended that the courts suspend his publication for one year, according to Gaspard Safari, president of the Rwanda Journalist Association.

Last year, Finance Minister James Musoni accused Umuco of collusion with “negative forces,” code for Congo-based Hutu rebels and exiled critics of Rwanda’s Tutsi-dominated government, according to local journalists.