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Media council wants tabloid suspended for defaming President Kagame

(MI/IFEX) - Rwanda's Media High Council (MHC) has called for the suspension of local tabloid "Umuseso" for allegedly defaming President Paul Kagame. The Council, which is the statutory regulatory body, took the decision in reaction to an article published by "Umuseso" in its July 20-27 issue comparing President Kagame with former president Habyarimana, alleging that Kagame's regime superseded Habyarimana's by its "technological dictatorship."

The offending article was an opinion piece entitled "Twins?", with a photo of Kagame and Habyarimana, underscored by a kicker, "Kagame better than Habyarimana by technological dictatorship."

In a press briefing on August 4, MHC Board Chairman Dr. Venuste Karambizi said that the conclusion was reached after a meeting with the newspaper's management to assess their position on the allegations against their reporting, which the council describes as "unethical" and "unprofessional". "Though we clearly showed them that they had gone beyond the line, they unfortunately ended up defending their flaws," Karambizi said. He said such an article was considered contempt of the President of the Republic, an action forbidden by both the country's Constitution and the media law.

In an August 3 letter seeking the suspension of the publication, the MHC said the "Umuseso" article defamed the head of state, was confusing to the public, carried false information and news without any source and was exaggerated. The Council said it had also considered various unethical stories by "Umuseso" since 2003 when MHC was established. It also found that none of the tabloid's journalists had press cards as required by law.

But Didas Gasana, managing director of the Rwanda Independent Media Group, which publishes the magazine, claims the MHC action is just another way of silencing the independent media. "The minister, during the July 27 presidential press conference, had said that our days were numbered and this is an implementation of her words. Why did they have to seek our suspension after the minister's comment?" Gasana wondered, arguing that the article was an opinion, which compared two systems and not personalities. In his view the opinion had not contravened any law. "The article compared two systems that led between 7 to 10 million Rwandans who deserved to judge for themselves and not the MHC," he said "They have no right to call us unethical when they behaved unprofessionally by feeding the public with one side. Why did they meet us if they would not consider any of our views?" he asked.

The group has been barred from covering official functions since last year and Gasana argued that he did not see the need for press cards. "Why bother getting a press card I would not use? We have been barred from accessing news from any public office, our sources are private individuals who do not need cards to give us information," he said, noting that as long as the council is biased he saw no need of associating with it.

It is not the first time the Media Council has taken action against the main private media group in the country. In 2005, the council issued a similar letter but the then Minister of information, Prof. Laurent Nkusi, did not respond and publication continued. The tabloid's fate now lies with the Minister of Information, Louise Mushikiwabo, who is yet to respond to the council's letter. Under Rwanda's media law, only the minister can suspend or ban a publication.
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