A Rwandan court has acquitted three journalists who had been detained for four years on charges of spreading false information with the intention of inciting violence and tarnishing the country’s image.
“There is no evidence to prove that their publication incited violence,” Speciose Nyirabagande, one of the court’s three judges, said on Wednesday.
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Rights groups say Rwanda has one of the worst human rights records in sub-Saharan Africa and accuse the government of using authoritarian means to stifle dissent.
The government rejects the accusations, saying it guarantees freedom of speech.
Jean Damascène Mutuyimana, Niyodusenga Schadrack and Jean Baptiste Nshimiyimana, reporters with the YouTube channel Iwacu TV, were arrested in October 2018 on allegations of causing unrest and spreading rumours.
They were repeatedly denied bail before their trial, according to the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists.
The trio’s defence lawyer Jean-Paul Ibambe said he welcomed the acquittal but criticised the length of their pre-trial detention.
“Imagine serving four years in preventive detention,” Ibambe told Reuters. “The courts should be quickening the procedures instead of taking this long time.”
The prosecution did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“The relief at the acquittal of the three journalists is overshadowed by the court’s failure to stop this sham of a trial earlier,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
“The fact a prosecution took place at all will send a chilling message to others who dare to exercise their right to free expression in Rwanda.”