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Tabloid website blocked

(MI/IFEX) - 7 June 2010 - The website of the suspended local tabloid "Umuvugizi" has been blocked in Rwanda. Accessing the site through the MTN or Rwandatel networks is no longer possible a month after the suspended publication's publisher vowed to move online.

"Umuvugizi"'s publisher, Jean Bosco Gasasira, has since relocated to Uganda, citing state persecution after the Media High Council suspended his publication in April 2010 following articles critical of the president and the first lady. He defied the suspension by launching its internet version. Though not accessible through two of Rwanda's biggest internet service providers, it can be accessed in PDF format by readers outside Rwanda and those using TiGO mobiles in Rwanda.

The Media High Council said publishing the paper online was a crime. Council Executive Secretary Patrice Mulama announced on the BBC Kinyarwanda service that if "Umuvugizi" was published online, it would be "blocked", without giving details of how that would be done.

Readers trying to access the website using the two internet providers *were unable to do so days after the tabloid had published articles citing President Paul Kagame as one of the richest personalities in Rwanda.

MTN Rwanda could not explain the anomaly. "I contacted people in the data department and they say we have nothing to do with that site since we do not host it," said Jean Bosco Sendahangarwa, the MTN Rwanda media officer. He did not elaborate.

This is the first time that a website has been blocked in Rwanda although this has happened in neighbouring Uganda, where http://www.radiokatwe.com , which often criticizes President Yoweri Museveni, has not been accessible in Uganda since February 2006. Tanzania also banned the "Jambo" website in 2006 but access was restored following pronounced outcry.

Available statistics suggest that MTN Rwanda and Rwandatel together carry up to 90 percent of internet traffic in the country. According to Mulama, an online edition of "Umuvugizi" will provide the Council with more evidence to convince the courts to ban the paper permanently.


BACKGROUND:

MTN Rwanda is principally owned by the South Africa-based MTN Group, which controls a 55-percent stake. Rwanda-based Tristar Investments SARL, an investment arm of the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) led by President Kagame, holds 35 per cent, and the remaining 10 per cent is held by other shareholders who are also said to be RPF cadres.

Before 2008, Rwandatel was fully owned by the government and local private companies. But 80 percent of the struggling company was bought by the Libyan government investment arm, Lap Green, which also owns Uganda Telecom. The other shares are held by Caisse Sociale du Rwanda (CSR), the national social security fund, a state body. TiGO is owned by the Luxemburg-based Millicom International and operates under the same TiGO brand in Tanzania and DR Congo.

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