Attacks on the Press 2000: Burundi

IN 1996, MAJ. PIERRE BUYOYA SEIZED POWER and promised a quick end to Burundi’s murderous civil war, which has taken more than 200,000 lives since 1993 and now consumes 50 percent of the national budget. His promises remained unfulfilled last year, leaving local journalists victims of and sometimes actors in a poisonous communal conflict.

Amid reports of looming famine, the Tutsi-dominated government continued to restrict media coverage of its war with Hutu guerrillas. On August 29, the warring parties met in Arusha, Tanzania, and signed a power-sharing deal, brokered by former South African president Nelson Mandela, in the presence of several international leaders. But the violence only escalated afterwards.

Throughout the year, Burundian media outlets attacked one another across ethnic and political lines. Early in March, Mandela urged the Buyoya government to loosen its control over state media in the hope of stimulating more constructive debate. Months later, however, the media feuds had only intensified. On September 10, Elie Muhitira resigned as head of the National Press Center in protest over what he described as its “lack of transparency and deep ethnic divisions.”

Both the government and rebel groups have threatened reporters who tried to document human rights abuses, including torture and extra-judicial killings. On September 7, police arrested Jean Claude Kavumbagu, director of the private news agency Net Press, and held him for eight hours, demanding to know the sources for an article in which he had accused Fabien Ndayishimiye, mayor of the capital city of Bujumbura, of torturing a prisoner with electric shocks. Kavumbagu, who refused to comply, was threatened with a lawsuit for criminal defamation and then released.

On May 11, a church-sponsored radio station called Ivyizigiro (Radio Hope), finally began to broadcast. The station, whose programming focuses on peace initiatives along with youth and women’s issues, was granted a license in December 1999, but did not receive a broadcast frequency from the state’s National Communication Council until March.

In October, the Washington-based International Women’s Media Foundation gave one of its three annual awards to Agnes Nindorema, a producer for the private radio station Studio Ijambo and a stringer for the Voice of America and Agence France-Presse. The group cited Nindorema’s “great courage and determination” in four years of covering the civil war.