THREE journalists were sentenced to prison in Rwanda over a story reporting on an extramarital affair between the mayor of the capital, Kigali, and a government minister, writes Dennis Itumbi for

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has condemned the arrests. "These prison sentences are deeply disturbing because they reveal a pattern of using criminal defamation to silence critical journalism in Rwanda," said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. "We urge the court of appeals to overturn this ruling."

Magistrate Fidele Bazihana of Nyarugenge Court in Kigali convicted former editor Charles Kabonero, Acting Editor-in-Chief Didas Gasana, and reporter Richard Kayigamba of the Kinyarwanda-language private weekly Umuseso in absentia of invading the privacy of Cabinet Affairs Minister Protais Musoni and Kigali Mayor Aisa Kirabo Kacyira under Rwanda's 1977 penal code and Rwanda's 2009 media law, defence lawyer Christopher Niyomugabo told CPJ.

The magistrate sentenced Kabonero to one year in prison and gave six-month prison terms to Gasana and Kayigamba.

The three were also ordered to pay damages of 1 million Rwandan francs (US$1,700) to the two officials.  The magistrate however dismissed the prosecutions requests to ban the newspaper and imprison the journalists upon conviction, according to Niyomugabo.

The journalists are free pending an appeal, he said.

Umuseso, known for its critical coverage of the government, was the first to report the allegations in November 2009, according to local journalists.

Kabonero told CPJ that the story was a matter of public interest because Rwandas 20008 Law on the Leadership Code of Conduct criminalized offenses like adultery for public office holders.

Both Mayor Kacyira and Musoni, who is also the Interim Information Minister, publicly denied the accusations. Kabonero and Gasana are already appealing a suspended two-year prison term from a 2008 conviction for slander over a story about tax evasion charges against businessman Tribert Rujugiro in South Africa, according to CPJ research.

Rujugiro was later detained in London on a South African arrest warrant on the charges reported by Umuseso, according to other news reports.

Rwandas new media laws adopted last year have been the focus of criticism by media experts in the region.