New York, June 6, 2011—The Supreme Court sentenced the exiled online editor of Umuvugizi, Jean Bosco Gasasira, on Friday to a two year and six month term in prison. Gasasira received this sentence for allegedly insulting Rwanda’s president and inciting civil disobedience, local journalists told CPJ. Gasasira believes the new sentence may stem from an online article he wrote that compared Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame to Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, he said. The opinion piece concluded that the Rwandan president was more tyrannical than the Zimbabwean leader.
Gasasira will face arrest if he returns to Rwanda. The decision cannot be appealed since it was reached by the country’s highest court.
Last September, a lower court acquitted Gasasira. Then the state prosecutor, Ruberwa Bonaventure, appealed the acquittal, calling for a 10 year prison sentence. Rwanda’s highest court concurred with the prosecutor and reversed the earlier ruling, local journalists told CPJ.
“The court decision appears to be a politicized, thinly-veiled attempt to censor the website Umuvugizi and ensure its editor can never return home,” said CPJ East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes. “Elected public officials should not resort to criminal sanctions when they are criticized.”
In April 2010, the government-influenced Media High Council suspended the independent weekly for six months for purportedly inciting violence and criticizing the head of state. Gasasira fled the country the same month after facing threatening phone calls and surveillance from military intelligence, he told CPJ. The veteran editor continued to publish Umuvugizi in an online version from exile. The Umuvugizi website was mysteriously blocked during the August presidential elections, local journalists told CPJ. No one in authority took responsibility for the temporary closure.
“Umuvugizi is more influential today than before even thought they suspended our newspaper in the country,” Gasasira told CPJ. Previously, Umuvugizi, a critical independent weekly written in the Kinyarwandan language, published 3,000 copies monthly. In contrast, the website is attracting up to 6,000 readers a day, he said.
Last week Umuvugizi was blocked again for nearly three days while Rwandan Patriotic Front member Tom Ndhairo allegedly sent a bogus version of the Umuvugizi website by email to a number of journalists and non-profit organizations, according to local journalists. Gasasira suspects the counterfeit version was designed to see who reads his website and bewilder his readers.