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Media group halts publishing in protest over government harassment; plot exposed to arrest journalist on trumped up charges; two journalists facing trial

(Media Institute/IFEX) - Rwanda's biggest independent private media group has suspended publication of its titles citing continued state blackmail and intimidation.

The Rwanda Independent Media Group (RIMEG), publishers of "Newsline" (Wednesday), "Umuseso" (Monday vernacular) and "Rwanda Championi" (Friday), announced it would not be publishing for at least two weeks starting October 23.

"With deep regret, Rwanda Independent Media Group, RIMEG, announces a decision to suspend all of its publications for an unspecified time effective October 23," declared Charles Kabonero, the managing director in an email seen by The Media Institute.

Kabonero said two ministers, James Musoni (Finance) and Musa Fazil Harelimana (Internal Security), had during a talk show aired on state TV and radio on 9 September 2007, accused the group of working with negative forces.

"More important to note is that President Paul Kagame re-solidified the accusations in a meeting with journalists on October 15, 2007, marking his 50th birthday, saying RIMEG and another newspaper called the 'Weekly Post' that was banned in June were funded, controlled and working with external negative forces," says Kabonero.

Neither the President nor his ministers would substantiate their claims, according to Kabonero.

"We, at RIMEG, believe that such are serious allegations, interpreted as treason in the country's penal law that should not go unchallenged. We have thus decided to suspend our publications, as a way of protesting such high-level intimidation and terrorism, requesting that if they have any evidence to that effect, they put it forward for the public to know and we be judged by both a competent court and the court of public opinion," Kabonero, 26, said in the email explaining his action.

He added: "We will, however, resume our publications as usual should they fail to substantiate the allegations, hopeful that the public will be able to assess by themselves that such high-level accusations are one of the government's 101 straits of intimidating, harassing, alienating and infringing on press freedom and [that of] RIMEG in particular."

Kabonero said that when the allegations were levelled against RIMEG, they wrote to the High Council of the Press but received no tangible results apart from condemnation.

Asked whether suspending operations was not cowardly and counterproductive, Kabonero argued that it will give the readers an opportunity to discover the lies the government has been peddling.

"Worth noting is the fact that we had earlier unearthed a covert plot by senior government officials to have at least five senior company staff arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Besides reporting the plot in our publications, we even informed the HCP (High Council of the Press) and the Ministry of information about these saddening developments," says Kabonero.

Interestingly, RIMEG, started in 1999, is often viewed in some quarters as a government ally and Kabonero has been accused of using his journalistic position to gather information for the state.

Beside the current threat, the company's deputy director, Furaha Mugisha, is due to appear in court on November 7, 2007, to answer trumped up charges of not being a Rwandan national and issuing a bounced cheque.

Kabonero and "Newsline" editor Didas Gasana are also to attend court on November 13, 2007, on charges of libel. "Umuseso" editor, Gerald Manzi, still reports to the prosecution every Friday as probation over concocted charges of rape (see IFEX alerts of 30 and 28 August 2007). It is claimed the above four together with the company productions manager, Kadafi Rwango, are on the government's list of targets.

Meanwhile, in the meeting with the media on October 15, President Kagame pledged to fund all newspapers that will "qualify" (based on their editorial line) and requested the Minister of Information to shortlist the media outlets, including the private ones, to receive funding and soft loans from the government.

The President also authorised advertising to be given only to papers that write favourable stories about the government.

The suspension of publication by the group comes soon after the "Weekly Post"'s deregistration in July by the government on accusations of being funded by Rwanda's enemies (see alerts of 15 June 2007).

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