Attacks on the Press 2001: Burundi

On April 18, troops loyal to President Pierre Buyoya, a member of the Tutsi ethnic group, dislodged hardline Tutsi soldiers calling themselves the Patriotic Youth Front from Radio Burundi. In an act reminiscent of African coups during the 1970s and 1980s, the rebels had occupied the station and aired a statement announcing Buyoya’s overthrow.

The rebels were apparently protesting a power sharing agreement signed in August 2000 between President Buyoya’s administration, 10 Tutsi-based parties, and seven ethnic Hutu-based opposition parties, which was expected to end Burundi’s civil war.

The dissident soldiers only occupied the state radio station, even though dozens of private and community stations have emerged in the war-plagued nation since the early 1990s. Although the government had often been at odds with non-state broadcasters prior to the coup, officials used the private radio stations to counter the rebel message, reassure the population, and coordinate the deployment of loyalist troops.

The implications of the independent media’s role in crushing the coup were not lost on Burundians, as President Buyoya praised private stations for offering a counter-balance to extremist opinions in the country.

While Burundi seemed relatively calm at year’s end, the picture was rather grim in early 2001, with peace talks deadlocked and recurrent gun battles raging in and around the capital, Bujumbura. On May 15, general exhaustion with the endless political intrigues associated with the civil war prompted the state-run Radio Burundi to castigate both the government and the opposition for failing to restore peace.

In an unusually outspoken editorial, the state radio station chided “a political class that has failed in the vital mission” of ending the conflict, according to the Panafrican News Agency (PANA). “The stalemate can no longer continue,” the station warned, adding that the fate of the country’s political class would be determined by the success or failure of the peace talks.

Although the majority of Burundians are ethnic Hutus, Tutsis have controlled the armed forces, the government, and much of the economy since independence from Belgium in 1962. This situation fueled the ethnic hatred that caused the civil war. The toll of the eight-year war is staggering: 200,000 dead; 600,000 internally displaced persons; and 400,000 refugees scattered in neighboring countries, the Committee for Refugees reported in October.

In April, President Buyoya launched a national security task force to develop internal security mechanisms and announced a three-year plan to build houses and other basic infrastructure for 1.2 million Burundians affected by the war. But Burundian journalists remained skeptical that the government, short of cash and grappling with a 40 percent drop in the production of coffee–Burundi’s main resource–would fulfill its promises.

The widespread cynicism did not deter the authorities, however. On July 23, peace negotiation facilitator Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, announced that the various parties had agreed on a three-year transition process, to begin November 1. Outside Burundi, many analysts dismissed the accord as no more than a façade. But the local press, worn out by years of war, seemed to welcome the plan, urging the deeply divided Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups to join forces and end the killing.

A new private broadcaster called Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) was particularly influential in advocating ethnic reconciliation, an ideal that station management put into practice by hiring both Hutu and Tutsi staffers. RPA struck a national chord, quickly becoming the country’s most listened-to station.

In late October, the transitional assembly adopted a provisional constitution with reasonable safeguards for basic rights, including freedom of speech and the press. And on November 1, a Tutsi-dominated interim government led by President Buyoya was installed with a three-year mandate for national reconciliation and reconstruction.

The main, Hutu-dominated rebel groups, the Force for the Defense of Democracy (FDD) and the National Liberation Force (FNL), both boycotted the negotiations that produced the new constitution, under which Hutu and Tutsi are supposed to alternate control of the government every three years. But most political parties did join the talks, raising hopes that real peace was a possibility.

March 10

Jean-Pierre Aimé Harerimana, Reuters.
Jacqueline Segahungu, RCA
Léon Masengo, Bonesha FM

Police barred three journalists from attending an opposition press conference held at the airport in the Burundian capital, Bujumbura. One journalist was physically attacked.

The three journalists were Reuters cameraman Harerimana; Segahungu, a reporter for the state broadcaster Radio Centre-Afrique; and Masengo, a reporter for Bonesha FM, a private station based in Bujumbura.

Police stopped the three reporters some 14 kilometers (about nine miles) from the airport, where Epitace Bayaganakandi, a presidential candidate for the opposition coalition of ethnic Tutsi parties known as G6, had scheduled a press conference marking his return to the country.

Although Masengo, Segahungu, and Harerimana all presented valid press credentials, the police denied them access to the airport and beat up Masengo. Segahungu and Harerimana managed to escape unharmed.

March 12

Gabriel Nikundana, Bonesha FM
Abbas Mbazumutima, Bonesha FM

Nikundana, a journalist for the Bujumbura independent radio station Bonesha FM, was arrested at his home by state security agents and taken to their headquarters. He was held for 48 hours and then charged with violating the Burundian Press Law.

On March 15, Abbas Mbazumutima, chief editor at Bonesha FM, was also arrested and taken to state security headquarters. He was charged with violating Article 44 of the press law, which prohibits the dissemination of “information inciting civil disobedience or serving as propaganda for enemies of the Burundian nation during a time of war.”

Earlier in March, Bonesha FM aired an interview with the spokesman of the rebel National Liberation Front, Anicet Ntawukiganayo. The interview had been conducted two weeks earlier while the rebels occupied the outskirts of Bujumbura.

Following the protests of several local and international human rights and media groups, Nikundana and Mbazumutima were released on March 16 after paying fines of 100,000 Burundian francs (US$100) each. The charges against them were dropped.

October 19

Alexis Sinduhije, Radio Publique Africaine

Sinduhije, director of the private broadcaster Radio Publique Africaine, was detained for a day and beaten in the offices of the Special Investigations Bureau in the capital, Bujumbura.

Authorities took offense at an interview the journalist had conducted with South African military peacekeepers, whose arrival in war-plagued Burundi that same day was supposed to be kept quiet.

The South Africans reportedly came to ensure the safety of ethnic Hutus who had agreed to return from exile to participate in peace talks with the ethnic Tutsi-led government. As in neighboring Rwanda, Burundian Tutsis and Hutus have been fighting a civil war for decades.

After he was released on payment of a 20,000 Burundian Franc (US$25) fine, Sinduhije told local reporters that police officers had insulted and beaten him during his detention. The officers claimed he had violated official instructions that the South African presence not be publicized without prior government sanction.

Sinduhije later dropped plans to file a complaint against the police, according to local journalists.