In Rwanda, defamation case is politicized

New York, October 26, 2009—The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned that the prosecution of Jean Bosco Gasasira, editor-in-chief of the Rwandan bimonthly Umuvugizi, on criminal defamation charges has been politicized and the outcome predetermined.

The case stems from complaints filed by a government prosecutor and a physician who say they were defamed by coverage claiming they were involved in a romantic relationship. The two said the alleged relationship was false, according to local reports. The case, while raising broad concerns about the criminalization of news reporting, has also been marred by undue political influence.

On July 27, Minister of Information Louise Mushikiwabo announced at a Kigali press conference that the days of certain publications were “numbered” and that Umuvugizi was being “brought to justice.” Plaintiffs John Bosco Mutangana, a prosecutor, and Diana Gashumba, a physician, filed their complaint four days later, on July 31, according to the bimonthly Rushyashya and local journalists. In a an October 19 story, Rushyashya cited “highly influential sources” as saying that Gasasira will face an eight-month jail sentence and a fine of 50 million Rwandan francs (US$87,799).

“The verdict of this case appears to have been rendered before the trial is over,” said CPJ’s Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “Rwandan authorities should allow Gasasira a fair trial.”

Other incidents have reinforced a sense that the criminal case against Umuvugizi, considered a rare independent news outlet, has been politicized. Even as proceedings were ongoing, for example, the Media High Council issued a letter calling on Umuvugizi to write an official apology and corrections to its July articles.

On October 22, lead defense lawyer Momo Jean de Dieu filed a complaint that presiding judge Nsenguyumva Silas had held an improper private discussion, he told CPJ. Momo, who told CPJ that he accidentally came upon the two discussing the case, said he sent an official protest letter to the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Gasasira told CPJ that since the trial began he has been routinely followed by men he believes are state security agents. The Umuvugizi editor has reason for concern: Unidentified men brutally attacked him at home in February 2007 after the newspaper published articles critical of the government, according to local journalists. 

Gasasira, who is being tried under the 2002 press law, faces up to one year imprisonment on the defamation charge. Momo is seeking in court to have Gasasira retried under the new media law that was enacted August 12.

The new Rwandan media law is itself, however, repressive. The new media law includes vague language that allows authorities to criminally prosecute journalists for publishing material considered in “contempt to the Head of State” or that “endangers public decency.” Journalists may still be prosecuted under the existing penal code, which continues to include provisions on defamation and privacy infringement that can lead to prison sentences, local journalists told CPJ.

“By criminalizing reporting, the new media law follows in the same vein as previous law,” said CPJ’s Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “CPJ calls on Rwandan authorities to revise the media law, the penal code, and all related law to make defamation a civil rather than criminal offense.”