President Pierre Buyoya’s government remained wary of political opposition and critical press reports during 2002. Meanwhile, government attempts to identify war criminals following Burundi’s eight-year civil war between the Tutsi-led regime and the Hutu-backed opposition stalled when peace talks collapsed again on November 7, and the conflict continued intermittently.
On January 14, Burundi’s leaders banned the Hutu-owned private news wire service Net Press, which often criticizes the government, because its “subversive, defamatory, insulting, and deceptive” journalism “undermines national unity, order, security, and public morality,” said officials. After press corps protests, the government lifted the ban on February 23.
Still, relations between the government and media remained strained in 2002. In February, President Buyoya traveled to New York to ask the U.N. Security Council to help end the killings and keep the peace process on track. But when violence erupted in various parts of the country throughout the year, a flurry of news reports questioned the regime’s professed desire for peace.
Buyoya had supported independent radio stations, the country’s most popular medium, since May 2001, when they favored Buyoya’s attempts to crush a military coup. However, the president failed to condemn the March 6 police attack on Studio Ijambo reporter and Associated Press stringer Aloys Niyoyita in the capital, Bujumbura. Police manhandled and detained Niyoyita while he was covering a rally by a group opposed to peace.
Buyoya also said nothing on May 17, when the official National Communication Council (NCC), which regulates media in Burundi, banned all news outlets from interviewing dissidents and rebel groups. The NCC’s decision came after the Defense Ministry complained that the independent Radio Publique Africaine had harmed national security by airing details of a planned military operation. NCC president Jean-Pierre Manda later explained, “It was not possession of the information that was illegal, but its premature broadcast.” A few months later, the NCC offered a similar argument when it banned the July issue of the private monthly PanAfrika, which the council said included “extremist and subversive” views. In an interview published in that PanAfrika edition, a former minister accused President Buyoya of being a dictator with policies that could “bury all Burundians alive.”
Surprisingly, although official interference with free expression continued, in early June, the NCC reversed its usual policy of siding with the government by calling on authorities to stop the “harassment and intimidation” of journalists. The council accused the State Attorney’s Office of violating press freedom with a news blackout on a police inquiry into the November 2001 killing of the head of the World Health Organization’s local office.
Net Press, a private, online news service, was banned by Minister of Communications Albert Mbonerrane. According to the PanAfrican News Agency, Mbonerrane said Net Press publishes “subversive, defamatory, insulting and deceptive” articles that “undermine national unity, order, security and public morality.”
In a country that has been plagued by a drawn-out civil war between ethnic Hutus and Tutsis, Burundian sources report that Net Press has a reputation for spreading extremist Tutsi viewpoints. In November 2001, a Tutsi-dominated transitional government was installed to bring Burundi out of civil war. But Net Press has stridently rejected the peace process and the new government.
Local sources said, however, that both Hutu and Tutsi journalists protested the ban and also pressed Minister Mbonerrane to allow the media to regulate itself to address such issues. According to the United Nations Integrated Regional Information Networks, Mbonerrane lifted the ban on Net Press on February 23. The news agency began posting news again on its Web site on February 25.
Aloys Niyoyita, Studio Ijambo, The Associated Press
Niyoyita, a reporter for Studio Ijambo, an independent broadcaster based in the capital, Bujumbura, and a stringer for The Associated Press (AP), was arrested while covering a protest by the dissident group Amasekanya.
That afternoon, government ministers were meeting at the Meridian Hotel in Bujumbura to inaugurate a nationwide awareness campaign for the Arusha peace accords, which were signed in August 2000. Niyoyita was covering a protest outside the hotel by Amasekanya, an ethnic Tutsi extremist group that opposes the accords and the transitional government of President Pierre Buyoya.
According to sources at Studio Ijambo, at about 4 p.m., police arrested Niyoyita, along with eight of the demonstrators, and seized his camera and tape recorder. He protested, telling the officers that he was a journalist and not a demonstrator, but they did not release him.
Police drove the detainees to a gendarmerie station, where Niyoyita once again told officers that he was a journalist and showed them his press card. One of the officers took the card and tore it apart. Niyoyita and the other prisoners were then interrogated.
The journalist was able to contact his employers by cell phone from within the gendarmerie. He was released after about an hour, following several phone calls from both Studio Ijambo and the AP, and his equipment was returned to him. Sources at Studio Ijambo said that the guards had tried to take the negatives from his camera but could not because it was digital.
All Burundian journalists
At a meeting between government officials and journalists, Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Cyrille Ndayirukiye banned all media in the country from interviewing any rebels. Burundian sources said the ban came after local news outlets carried an interview with Agathon Rwasa, leader of the rebel National Liberation Front. In the interview, Rwasa denounced a government plot to assassinate him and threatened to take retaliatory actions against the regime in Bujumbura.
ýovernment officials did not specify what penalties would be imposed on media that violated the ban. During the meeting, officials also discussed Radio Publique Africaine’s continuing independent investigations into the November 2001 assassination of the World Health Organization representative in Burundi. Authorities were angered that the station continued to investigate while police were still examining the case as well. Prosecutor General Gerard Ngendabanka said that the media were now prohibited from discussing criminal cases still under investigation. Both independent journalists and the National Communications Council, a state-run media regulatory body, protested the bans.
The privately owned monthly PanAfrika was banned by the National Communication Council (NCC) for publishing a lengthy interview with a politician with extremist views, which the NCC said incited ethnic hatred. The Burundi Journalists Association immediately condemned the ban, arguing that PanAfrika must remain in print because it is the “only remaining privately owned newspaper that had resumed publication” in recent years. Government bans or financial problems have forced others out of print.