Rwanda’s highest court today upheld a suspended sentence of a year in prison and a fine of 1 million Rwandan francs (1,450 euros) for newspaper editor Charles Kabonero for “public insult” in a series of analytical articles criticising the way the government operated, but quashed his conviction on charges of libel and “divisionism,” Reporters Without Borders has learned.
The ruling was issued by the High Court of the Republic of Rwanda sitting in appeal. Kabonero is the editor of the independent weekly Umuseso.
“The judicial authorities have finally recognised that Kabonero did not libel parliamentary deputy speaker Denis Polisi and was not guilty of ‘divisionism,’ a very serious crime in Rwanda,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“But he has been given a heavy sentence for simply questioning the political ambitions of senior officials and examining the networks of influence within the government,” the organisation continued. “This shows that Rwanda, despite the government’s attempts to make us believe otherwise, is still hamstrung by taboos. If a newspaper fails to sing the government’s praises, the least sign of boldness brings dire consequences.”
Kabonero was the target of a vicious smear campaign in April, especially in the fortnightly Focus, which used a forged e-mail message to accuse him of conspiring with Lt. Abdul Ruzibiza, a former officer in the special services of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (FPR), to launch a wave of bombings in Kigali and bring down the government. Although the message published in Focus was a crude forgery, Reporters Without Borders investigated the allegations and found them to be baseless.
22.03.2005 - Editor gets one-year suspended sentence and heavy fine over political analysis
Reporters Without Borders protested against the disproportionality of the one-year suspended prison sentence imposed today by a Kigali appeal court on Charles Kabonero, the editor of Rwanda’s main independent weekly Umuseso, for "attacking the dignity of a high authority." The court also imposed a heavy fine which Kabonero will be hard-pressed to pay
"The obstinacy of the plaintiff, parliamentary deputy speaker Denis Polisi, has had derisory results inasmuch as the courts found Umuseso not guilty of libel or sowing division, but a very heavy sentence has been imposed on a charge lacking in substance, to say the least," the press freedom organization said.
"We appeal to President Paul Kagame to pardon Charles Kabonero and, furthermore, to adopt political measures to improve the climate for Rwanda’s independent press, which is being stifled by draconian laws and overly litigious politicians," Reporters Without Borders added.
In addition to the suspended sentence, the court ordered Kabonero to pay a fine of 1 million Rwandan francs (1,382 euros) and 55,000 Rwanda francs (76 euros) in court fees as a result of a libel action brought before the Nyarugenge district court in Kigali by Polisi, who is also secretary-general of the ruling FPR party.
The action was prompted by an article in the 1-7 August 2004 issue of Umuseso which asked whether it was President Kagame or Polisi who really governed 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 complaint was originally referred by the information ministry to the High Press Council (HCP), which on 18 August 2004 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 a court case. Thereafter, the case was referred to the courts.