Rwanda shuts critical papers in run-up to presidential vote

New York, April 13, 2010The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns today’s decision by Rwanda’s Media High Council to suspend two independent weeklies just months prior to presidential elections. At a press conference, attended only by state broadcasters and the pro-government radio station Contact FM, the Media High Council announced an immediate six month suspension of private vernacular weeklies, Umuseso and Umuvugizi.

The council accused Umuseso of insulting the head of state, inciting the police and army to insubordination, and creating fear among the public, council official Wilson Karamaga told CPJ. The council, a nominally independent body heavily influenced by the government, did not link these accusations to any particular article in Umuseso and did not specify the reasons for the suspension of Umuvugizi, local journalists said. Umuseso and Umuvugizi may challenge the council’s suspensions in court, he said.

The six-month suspension will ensure both independent papers are unable to cover the presidential elections scheduled for August. Both papers are known for critical coverage of the ruling party, the Rwanda Patriotic Front.

“By silencing these two local-language newspapers the Media High Council is robbing Rwanda voters of crucial alternative voices during the presidential election campaign,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes said. “The ruling is a thinly disguised attempt at censorship. If the election is to be seen as free and fair, the council must reverse this ruling and ensure that all media are able to cover the campaign.”

The duration of the suspension raises questions as well. The council can legally suspend a weekly publication for a maximum of two weeks unless the paper is seen as a repeat offender. Umuseso Deputy Editor Didas Gasana said the paper has never been suspended before and should not face a six-month suspension under the law.