Reporters Without Borders welcomed a Kigali court’s decision to not imprison Umuseso editor Charles Kabonero and acquit him of a charge of "sowing divisions" at the end of a trial today, even if it found him guilty of "libel and attacking the dignity of a high authority" in an action brought by parliamentary deputy speaker Denis Polisi.
"We hope that Denis Polisi will not appeal and we call for Umuseso to henceforth be allowed to operate in peace," the organisation said. The newspaper is Rwanda’s main independent weekly.
Noting that the court’s verdict was hailed by the many news media covering the trial and by the weekly’s supporters, Reporters Without Borders voiced the hope that it would open the way for reform of the press code, saying this was "essential for the existence of a free press in Rwanda."
Kabonero himself considered the libel charge to be the more serious of the two charges brought against him. The court sentenced him to pay a symbolic fine of one Rwandan franc plus 8,600 RWF (about 17 US $) in damages.
Reporters Without Borders today said it was "scandalous" that Charles Kabonero, the editor of Rwanda’s main independent weekly Umuseso, could be sentenced to a long term in prison and a heavy fine as a result of a libel suit brought by parliamentary deputy speaker Denis Polisi over one of Kabonero’s articles.
November 17, 2004
Editor of leading independent weekly faces imprisonment over political analysis
The article was about the Polisi’s influential network of friends in the political area and his possible political ambitions. The Kigali prosecutor’s office yesterday requested a four-year prison term and a fine of 50 millions Rwandan francs (about 70,000 euros) for Kabonero. A verdict is due on 23 November.
"Rwanda’s judicial authorities should think about the scale of the aberration Kabonero is facing," Reporters Without Borders said. "Even if the court ends up passing a lighter sentence than the one requested by the attorney-general, Kabonero at this moment faces the possibility of being jailed over a political analysis he wrote for his newspaper. For a government that claims to respect press freedom, this is scandalous."
The case should serve as a signal that it is time to decriminalize press offences in Rwanda, as elsewhere, the organisation added.
The action brought before the Nyarugenge district court in Kigali by Polisi, who is also secretary-general of the ruling FPR party, accuses Kabonero of "sowing division," attacking the dignity of a high authority and libel.
Published in the 1-7 August issue, the article asked whether it is President Paul Kagame or Polisi who really governs Rwanda. It referred to Polisi’s former membership of the Tutsi refugee diaspora in Burundi, and alleged that he rented offices in a building he owned to several parastatal bodies.
"The charge of ’sowing division’ is very serious in a country that has suffered as much as Rwanda and in no way applies in this case," Reporters Without Borders said. "We hope the court will understand that it would be out of all proportion to imprison a journalist just for writing an article that displeases the authorities."
The information ministry previously referred the case to the High Press Council (HCP), which on 18 August called on Kabonero to "recognise his mistakes," publish a correction and reveal his sources. Umuseso’s editorial board refused to comply, so the council proposed on 13 September that the newspaper should be closed for four months. The ministry did not follow the council’s recommendation on the grounds that it could prejudice the court case.
In recent years, Umuseso staff have been arrested in an arbitrary fashion and issues have been confiscated. One of its journalists, Tharcisse Semana, was forced to flee into exile in September after being followed and subjected to other forms of intimidation.