Media rights groups are condemning Rwanda's criminal conviction of three top journalists at one of the country's last independent news publications. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders is calling on French President Nicolas Sarkozy to address press freedom concerns with his Rwandan counterpart during a watershed visit to the central African nation later this week.
The publisher, the acting editor, and a reporter at the private Rwandan weekly Umuseso were sentenced to prison terms and fines this week for reporting on an alleged romantic affair between two senior government officials.
Global press freedom watchdog groups, including U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists and France-based Reporters Without Borders, are slamming the convictions, which they cite as the latest example of the systematic repression of free press in Rwanda.
Earlier this week Amnesty International accused Rwandan President Paul Kagame of using vague criminal speech laws to suppress political opposition.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is arriving in the Rwandan capital Kigali later this week to signal a pivotal thawing of relations between the two nations.
Reporters Without Borders secretary-general, Jean-Francois Julliard, said his organization was urging the French leader to bring up the issue of press freedoms during his meeting with Mr. Kagame.
"We have sent a letter to President Sarkozy about the situation of the press in Rwanda, and we want him to speak about this issue and human rights in general with President Kagame during Sarkozy's visit to Kigali in a few days," he said.
Relations between France and Rwanda have been icy ever since the 1994 genocide that left some 800,000 dead in 100 days, most of them were Rwandan Tutsi. Kagame's ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front has accused the French of supporting the ethnic Hutu militias which led the slaughter.
Rwanda cut off official diplomatic ties between the two nations after a French judge accused President Kagame of ordering the killing in 1994 of Rwanda's then-leader, whose death served as the trigger for the ethnic bloodshed.
The two nations restored ties last year.
The three journalists were convicted for violating the privacy of government officials in reporting the alleged extramarital affair between Kigali's mayor and the cabinet affairs minister. But the three media workers say that the issue is a matter of public concern because a 2008 ethics law specifically forbids public officials from committing adultery.
Julliard says that the Umuseso weekly, printed in the local Kinyarwanda language, is significant because it is one of the few remaining private weeklies remaining with an independent editorial stance, which often has put it at odds with the Kagame government.
Rwanda ranked 157th out of 175 countries worldwide in a Reporters Without Borders 2009 press freedom index. Only three African countries - Eritrea, Somalia, and Equatorial Guinea - fared worse.
A recent Committee to Protect Journalists report on attacks against the press last year around the world also named Rwanda as one of the worst offenders of media rights on the continent.
The Rwandan judge refused to order the Umuseso publication completely shut down, as had been sought by the state prosecutor.