KIGALI, Oct 5 (Reuters) - A Rwandan court on Wednesday 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.
Rights groups say Rwanda is among the countries in sub-Saharan Africa that has the worst record for jailing journalists, and accuse the government of using authoritarian means to stifle dissent.
The government rejects the accusations, saying it guarantees free speech.
Jean Damascene Mutuyimana, Niyonsenga Schadrack and Jean Baptiste Nshimiyimana, reporters with the YouTube channel Iwacu TV, were arrested in October 2018 for, authorities said at the time, causing unrest and spreading rumours.
They were repeatedly denied bail before their trial, according to the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists.
"There is no evidence to prove that their publication incited violence," said Speciose Nyirabagande, one the court's three judges.
After their release from Mageragere Prison near the capital Kigali, all three reporters said they would continue to practise journalism.
"I am a journalist, and I was a journalist, and I will always be," Nshimiyimana told Reuters.
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, the courts should be quickening the procedures instead of taking this long time," Ibambe told Reuters.
A national prosecution authority spokesman said the body respected the court's decision.
"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 rights watchdog 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."
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