Attacks on the Press 1999: Burundi

Since October 1993, when Tutsi soldiers killed the democratically elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, successive regimes have used physical and bureaucratic coercion to stifle independent journalism in Burundi. That includes the incumbent strongman Major Pierre Buyoya, who seized power in 1996.

Six years into Burundi’s civil war, Hutu guerrillas continue to fight the Tutsi-dominated government and armed forces. An estimated 250,000 civilians have died and a million people have been displaced, including 200,000 outside Burundi. The warring parties continue to negotiate in Arusha, Tanzania, but these talks seem unlikely to result in a sustainable peace agreement.

The civil war is a hazardous beat: many local reporters practice self-censorship to avoid violent retribution from one faction or another. Since 1993, five journalists have died in the line of duty: four Hutu reporters with the state-owned National Radio and Television and one South African television producer.

In a September 9 radio broadcast, defense minister Col. Alfred Nkurunziza instructed his troops to target journalists covering the fighting in the province of Bujumbura Rurale, near the capital, Bujumbura. Nkurunziza singled out Radio France Internationale for particular criticism, accusing the Paris-based network of slanting its coverage to favor local Hutu rebels.

June 17
Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, Net Press IMPRISONED

Kavumbagu, head of the independent press agency Net Press, was arrested after appearing before the court on charges that he had violated article 22 of the press law of March 21, 1997, which requires newspapers to complete a registration of copyright.

According to Article 24 of the same law, however, press agencies, radio stations, and television stations are not required to register their copyright. Justice Ndayiragije, who is in charge of the case as attorney general for the Republic of Bujumbura, has allegedly called Net Press an “extremist and divisive” news agency.

Kavumbagu was released on June 30 after being held for two weeks without trial.

September 9
Radio France Internationale THREATENED
All journalists covering the civil conflict in Bujumbura Rurale province THREATENED

Burundi’s defense minister, Col. Alfred Nkurunziza, said in a speech broadcast on state radio that the army should consider all journalists enemies, and therefore legitimate targets, if they entered Bujumbura Rurale Province near the capital, where the army was fighting ethnic Hutu rebels.

Addressing his remarks to army commanders, the defense minister singled out Radio France Internationale (RFI), a Paris-based station popular in Francophone Africa, for particular criticism. According to journalists in Burundi, Colonel Nkurunziza said: “That radio [RFI]. . .is openly supporting the rebels. When you see journalists here you [should] consider them as enemies, as rebels.”

In response to the speech, several journalists working for international news organizations in the country expressed fears that they might become targets. Their employers advised them to exercise extreme caution.