KIGALI - The High Council of the Press (HCP) has granted a request made by journalists last week seeking the media watchdog’s backing for a one-year suspension of a local newspaper for publishing derogatory and defamatory articles. During an extraordinary meeting on Good Friday, the council members agreed to request the Ministry of Information to ask “relevant authorities to temporarily suspend (Umuco newspaper) for a period of 12 months.” “(The HCP) has agreed to the request of the owners of media organizations in Rwanda that the director of Umuco newspaper, Mr Bonavanture Bizumuremyi, loses his press card for a period of twelve months as the law provides,’ the council said in a statement signed by its Secretary, Thais Ruboneka.
The nine-member board council further asked law-enforcement authorities to bring Bizumuremyi and one Jason Mukasa to book.
The development follows last Tuesday’s crisis meeting between a media auto-regulatory body, and media proprietors and practitioners, during which participants issued a statement condemning four articles published in Umuco edition number 45, one of which likened President Paul Kagame and Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF) to the Holocaust mastermind Adolf Hitler and his Nazi forces.
In that meeting, journalists agreed to petition the HCP to take the said measures, and decided to file a separate lawsuit against Bizumuremyi.
The journalists were particularly dumbfounded by an article in the said edition by one Jason Mukasa who, based on recent indictments issued by a Spanish judge against forty RDF officers, claimed Kagame was at crossroads of life and death, suggested that Kagame should either “commit suicide, cling to power until death, flee to exile or surrender himself to the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC).”
Jason Mukasa is said to be a ghost by-line owing to the fact that both the HCP and the Rwanda Media Ethic Commission (RMEC) could not trace him.
The other articles deemed highly unprofessional by the media fraternity and intended to destabilise public order include one alleging that a clique led by Gen. Jack Nziza ‘continues to set Kigali City on fire’ and another claiming that Rwanda is a lawless nation. Also cited is an editorial in the same edition, in which it was alleged that Tutsi State Ministers are appointed to closely monitor the activities of their more senior Hutu ministers.
‘After reviewing the articles in that newspaper especially the one with headline ‘Kagame grapples with three options in his last days’, participants observed that those articles are full of defamation, libel and tarnish the Head of State, with potential to destabilise the country.
‘The said articles are characterized by judgments, spreading rumours, provocative and unfounded accusations that contravene the laws and deontological ethics of journalists and journalism in Rwanda,’ the HCP said in a release, a copy of which was obtained by The New Times.
The press council also observed that it was not the first time Umuco newspaper publishes articles that breach the Constitution, the Penal Code and the Press Law.
The HCP ‘condemns and denounces the workings of Umuco newspaper because it finds no other motivation (of the newspaper) apart from misleading the population and inciting public hatred of the leadership.’
The HCP Executive Secretary Patrice Mulama said that besides the journalists’ petition, the council received a similar complaint from an ordinary person who requested it to take punitive measures against Bizumuremyi.
The Umuco case is the first test for new Information Minister Louise Mushikiwabo who replaced Laurent Nkusi in the March 7 Cabinet reshuffle. Mushikiwabo, who has been on a familiarization tour of media organs for the past few days, told The New Times yesterday that she had received the HCP’s letter but was yet to look into it.
“I haven’t done anything about it yet because I need to first study the case with the people I work with,” she said during a tour of the HCP offices last evening.
Hardly two weeks into the office, Mushikiwabo finds herself in the same situation as her predecessor who on several occasions refused to bow to the council’s requests to withdraw the operating licence of” errant” newspapers.
In 2005, the then HCP president Privat Rutazibwa, threw in the towel after Nkusi declined to grant the council’s wish to ban Umuseso for three months after the latter published an article that allegedly defamed Lower House Vice Speaker Denis Polisi.
At that time, Nkusi preferred to keep his hands off the case, leaving it to the courts.. In 2006, another case involving Umurabyo newspaper also ended up in the courts of law without the then minister sanctioning the newspaper’s suspension.
Police have already initiated criminal proceedings against Bizumuremyi and until yesterday the editor had not responded to Police summons. Police Spokesman Inspector Willy Marcel Higiro said last evening that Bizumuremyi went into hiding after receiving the summons.
“He has been underground for sometime now. He shouldn’t be running away from responsibility. He defamed the Head of State, a crime punished by Article 234 of the Penal Code. He should come forward and take responsibility for his deeds,” Higiro said, refuting earlier allegations that Police broke into Bizumuremyi’s house and left it vandalized.
“That is not our mandate. For us we are still waiting for him, and are going ahead with our judicial proceedings.”