Attacks on the Press 2003: Burundi

Burundi made some progress toward peace in 2003, but cease-fires remained fragile and civilians continued to bear the brunt of fighting between Hutu rebels and the Tutsi-dominated army. At the end of April, under intense international pressure, Tutsi President Pierre Buyoya stepped down in favor of his Hutu vice president, Domitien Ndayizeye, in accordance with the Arusha peace accords of August 2000. A cease-fire signed in December 2002 by the largest Hutu rebel group, Forces for the Defense of Democracy (FDD), failed to end the war. However, in November 2003, the same group signed a South Africa-mediated peace deal with the government, providing for power sharing in politics and the security forces. At the start of 2004, the National Liberation Forces (FNL), the only group remaining outside the peace process, agreed to talks with the government.

The government has shown some sympathy toward press freedom issues, notably with the enactment of a new media law in late 2003 that journalists generally hailed as an improvement on previous press legislation. However, problems in the peace process have often been accompanied by attempts to censor the media and ban communication with rebel groups. This happened under both Buyoya and Ndayizeye.

In March, Buyoya banned all private radio stations from broadcasting interviews and statements from the FDD and FNL rebel groups that were continuing to fight. In September, Ndayizeye’s government closed the popular private station Radio Isanganiro for seven days after it aired a debate featuring Pasteur Habimana, an FNL spokesman. A letter from Communications Minister Albert Mbonerane accused the station of “endangering national unity” by putting Habimana on the air. In solidarity with Radio Isanganiro, three other private radio stations, Bonesha FM, Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), and CCIB FM, announced that they would not broadcast any government news or statements for the duration of Radio Isanganiro’s closure.

Three days later, the government ordered RPA closed for an indefinite period after it interviewed Habimana about Radio Isanganiro’s closure. Journalists at RPA told CPJ that Habimana apologized for causing the ban and commented on the collapse of talks between the government and the FDD. A government letter accused RPA of “violating Article 44 of the Press Law by vilifying the government and disseminating propaganda of the country’s enemy.” The letter also said that authorities had warned radio stations not to broadcast “inflammatory statements against the government, which is trying to obtain a global and permanent cease-fire”–a statement also contained in the letter to Radio Isanganiro.

However, the ban on RPA was lifted three days later, and Isanganiro was allowed to resume broadcasting the same day. Bonesha FM, CCIB FM, Radio Isanganiro, and RPA then announced an end to their boycott on covering government activities. Local journalists attributed the lifting of the ban to public pressure, linked to the fact that Burundians are increasingly turning to private radio for news and information.

While print media remain weak, a number of private radio stations have been launched in recent years, providing regular and diversified news and posing a challenge to the state broadcaster, RTNB. Several private stations have been established with funds from foreign donors. Journalists say the stations are playing an increasingly influential role, especially in trying to break the culture of impunity in Burundi.

For example, RPA investigated the November 2001 murder of World Health Organization representative Dr. Kassy Manlan and began broadcasting its findings in early 2002. Although police had made several arrests, RPA charged that the real killers were still at large. Other media took up the story, and diaspora Web sites alleged that Manlan’s murder was linked to the embezzlement of development funds by a senior politician. One article directly accused former President Buyoya of involvement. In May 2002, authorities tried to ban RPA from investigating the murder, saying the media were now prohibited from discussing criminal cases still under investigation. RPA nevertheless continued to air interviews with the family of the victim and lawyers involved in the case. In October 2003, five new suspects were arrested, including senior figures in the Burundian security services who had been on the original committee appointed to investigate the murder. Local journalists said RPA’s reporting played a significant role in the arrests.

RPA Director Alexis Sinduhije said that he and other RPA journalists were subject to frequent harassment over the Manlan affair. He told CPJ in late 2003 that he had received death threats and did not feel safe. According to journalists, security is a continuing problem, especially when reporting on such sensitive subjects as conflict, government corruption, massacres, human rights abuses, and the 1993 assassination of Hutu President Melchior Ndadaye, which sparked the civil war.

Journalists have mostly welcomed a new media law, which they say has taken some of their concerns into consideration. For example, it provides for the protection of sources and simplifies procedures for starting a new publication. Newspapers no longer have to submit copies to authorities before going on sale, and radio license fees are also being reduced. The new law also contains a “conscience clause” whereby a journalist can invoke reasons of conscience for refusing to cover a story. An employer may fire a journalist who does this, but only upon payment of “just and equitable compensation.”

Unfortunately, the new law still includes criminal penalties, including heavy fines and prison sentences, for such press offenses as insulting the head of state. The definition of this offense also remains vague. “The new law contains important advances,” said Augustin Kabayabaya, president of the Burundian Journalists’ Association, “but I deplore the fact that the anomalies that allow abuse of the media have not disappeared.”