International press freedom organisations call on Burundi authorities to investigate attacks on journalists and human rights defenders

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5 August 2015

The undersigned press freedom, media development and human rights organisations denounce the continued attacks on and threats to journalists, media workers and human rights defenders, most recently the serious incidents in which human rights defender Pierre Claver Mbonimpa survived an attempt on his life while journalist Esdras Ndikumana was the victim of a brutal attack by police and intelligence officials.

Furthermore, we are very concerned by the continued closure of independent media outlets and the consequent lack of access to reliable information in Burundi. This is particularly concerning given the continuing deterioration of the country’s security situation – a time when all Burundians should have access to accurate and balanced information rather than relying on rumours.

We call on the Burundian authorities to investigate these attacks immediately and to ensure that those responsible are found and brought to justice in a fair trial. Furthermore, we call on the authorities to allow for the re-opening and functioning of independent media and allow them to operate from the Maison de la Presse or from wherever they choose. This is particularly imperative given that several major radio stations have been destroyed. We also encourage the authorities to allow for the rebuilding and re-equipping of these media houses.

In addition, we encourage the authorities to ensure that the more than 50 journalists and media workers who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries are allowed to return safely to Burundi and resume their work in the country without fear of prosecution or persecution.
Finally, we encourage dialogue between the authorities and media, between the authorities and opposition parties and between authorities and United Nations and African Union representatives to create conditions conducive to building an environment of peace for all Burundians.

Tom Henheffer, Executive Director, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE)
Toby Mendel, Executive Director, Center for Law and Democracy
Caroline Vuillemin, Director of Operations, Fondation Hirondelle
Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President, Freedom House
Daniel Bekele, Africa Director, Human Rights Watch
Melody Patry, Senior Advocacy Officer, Index on Censorship
Ernest Sagaga, Head, Human Rights and Safety, International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)
Jesper Højberg, Executive Director, International Media Support (IMS)
Barbara Trionfi, Executive Director, International Press Insitute (IPI)
Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Director, Free Expression Programs, PEN American Center
Tamsin Mitchell, Africa Researcher and Campaigner, PEN International
Cléa Kahn-Sriber, Head of Africa Desk, Reporters sans Frontières
Ronald Koven, Acting Director, World Press Freedom Committee

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Burundi: Nkurunziza targets the press

President Pierre Nkurunziza (Photo: World Economic Forum/Eric Miller)

President Pierre Nkurunziza (Photo: World Economic Forum/Eric Miller)

After a bloody civil war that shook Burundi for 12 years, Pierre Nkurunziza and his former rebel group cum political party NCDD-FDD, came to power in 2005. The international community heaved a sigh of relief and Nkurunziza was given credit for ensuring stability. In 2010 however, President Nkurunziza and the NCDD-FDD were re-elected with an absolute majority during elections boycotted by the opposition. Matters then took a turn for the worse.

Nkurunziza clamped down on opposition and drove NCDD-FDD’s only coalition partner, UPRONA, out of the government. The Nkurunziza government also came to see members of civil society, who were critical, as opposition. Then it targeted the press with restrictive legislation.

International NGO’s have warned that press freedom in Burundi has reached a critical phase. US-based Freedom House ranks Burundi’s press as “not free”, mainly due to the country’s political and legal environment. Human Rights Watch stated that Burundi’s press law is “abusive”. Apart from occasional violence, arbitrary arrests and intimidation of journalists by security forces, the press law is at the heart of the problem for journalists who want to report critically on government policy.

Dating from April 2013, the press law gives the Nkurunziza government wide-ranging authority to severely limit the reporting of journalists. The law included new press-related crimes which, when committed, would be penalised with exorbitant fines or the withdrawal of press credentials. These fines could be three times the average annual salary of a Burundian. Under the law, journalists risk losing their livelihood and becoming indebted for the rest of their lives.

The law also required Burundian journalists to complete a degree in journalism. Experienced journalists would hereby become banished from the profession at a great cost for investigative and critical journalism. Journalists can also be compelled to release their sources. The principle of confidentiality is thrown away like a rag.

Perhaps most damaging to press freedom, journalists under this law are forbidden to report on topics concerning national defence, public safety, state security and the local currency. Any journalist that even remotely approaches any of these topics risks being prosecuted.

While NCDD-FDD officials state that they want to professionalise the media and ensure the press doesn’t incite violence, there appears to be more at stake. Even though journalists in Burundi persist in reporting on these topics and the law seems not to be enforced on a large scale for now, the mere existence of the law is a threat to the freedom of press and expression.

Nkurunziza and his party NCDD-FDD are looking to extend their rule in the 2015 general elections. In March, one of the key opposition parties, the Movement for Solidarity and Development (MSD) was suspended for four months after violent clashes between their supporters and the police. Twenty-one MSD activists were also sentenced to life in prison in the wake of this event. The International Crisis Group (ICG) has already expressed its concern regarding a possible escalation of violence in the coming elections. In the run-up to these elections of next year, considering this increasingly strained atmosphere between government and opposition, it is most important that the press is fully given the possibility to fulfil its role as fourth estate. The Burundian media, which at the moment is working to fulfil this role, has the crucial task to inform the populace, especially on the topics which they are now forbidden to report.

Several NGO’s already appealed to Nkurunziza and his government to revoke the press law. However, it seems as though more incentives are needed to persuade the NCDD-FDD of the importance of a revocation.

As Burundi’s most important donor country Belgium has the responsibility to put the topic of freedom of press and expression on the table. Belgium is currently re-negotiating its bilateral donor agreement with Burundi and it would be a missed opportunity if the Belgian government didn’t take the lead. It should be made clear that the bilateral agreement involves rights, but also obligations. One of those obligations should imply respecting the human right to freedom of expression and freedom of press.

Belgium must become a trailblazer by introducing conditionality in its bilateral agreement with Burundi. Ahead of the elections, journalists are hoping Belgium takes action.

This article was originally posted on April 28, 2014 at

Burundi: Reporter sentenced to life imprisonment

A High Court in Burundi has sentenced a journalist to life  in prison over terrorism charges. Hassan Ruvakuki, a reporter for local radio station Bonesha FM and French government-funded broadcaster Radio France Internationale was found guilty of “participating in terrorist attacks”, along with 13 other defendants. In November 2011, Ruvakuki recorded a statement from former police officer Pierre Claver Kabirigi, claiming to be the leader of a new rebel group. Upon his return to the capital of Bujumbura he was arrested by security agents and questioned him over his alleged links to the rebel group. The journalist’s lawyer plans to appeal.

Burundi: Prosecutor requests life imprisonment for journalist charged with terrorism

A prosecutor in Burundi has requested a life sentence for a journalist facing charges of terrorism. Radio journalist Hassan Ruvakuki was arrested on 28 November 2011 after interviewing an alleged member of a rebel group based in Tanzania. The journalist and 22 others are charged with “participating in acts of terrorism”. Many of the defendants, including Ravakuki, refused to enter pleas, as they believe the trial violates procedural rules and basic defence rights. The court adjourned until 20 June.