Reporters Without Borders “firmly condemns” the High Media Council’s decision to suspend two independent Rwandan newspapers, Umuseso and Umuvugizi, for six months. Announced yesterday by the council’s executive secretary, Patrice Mulama, the suspension comes at a time of tension between the government and independent media and will prevent the two newspapers from covering the presidential election, now just five months away.
“This decision clearly aims to gag Rwanda’s main sources of independent news in the run-up to the August 2010 presidential election,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It suppresses all critical journalism and deprives Rwandans of an alternative to the state newspapers. The High Media Council, which takes its orders from the highest level of government, is ensuring that the election campaign will be tightly controlled and monolithic.”
The High Media Council has accused the two weeklies of “inciting insubordination in the army and police regarding orders from superiors,” publishing “information that endangers public order,” rumour mongering, defamation and invasion of privacy.
A Kigali lawyer said the suspension of the two weeklies under article 83 of the media law was illegal because the council can only order a newspaper’s temporary or permanent closure if it has previously found it guilty of the same offence, which is not the case with either of the two publications. They have decided to appeal.
Rwanda’s independent newspapers have been the target of direct criticism from government officials in the past few months, including President Paul Kagame, who recently told parliament that “newspapers that spread rumours will be closed.” The publisher, editor and one of the reporters of another newspaper were given jail sentences in February. See the previous release.
Rwanda was ranked 157th out of 175 countries in the 2009 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. This was the fourth lowest ranking in Africa – after Eritrea, Somalia and Equatorial Guinea. President Kagame has been on the Reporters Without Borders list of “Predators of Press Freedom” for several years.