Independent radio station faces government ban

New York, July 15, 2005—Burundi’s National Communications Council has ordered the popular independent station Radio Publique Africaine off the air indefinitely, alleging that RPA’s recent election coverage was biased and that it had insulted the council. Alexis Sinduhije, RPA’s director, called the suspension unjust and said the station intended to stay on the air despite the order.

In a letter to the station, the council ordered RPA off the air as of 8 a.m. today local time, said Sinduhije, a 2004 recipient of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award. The letter accused RPA of giving live coverage to the election campaigns of only two political parties out of some 30 that ran in the recent election, including the former rebel CNDD-FDD. It also accused RPA of having broadcast “defamatory, insulting, and offensive words” about the council, according to Agence France-Presse.

Burundi held municipal elections June 3 and parliamentary elections July 4, aimed at ending more than a decade of ethnic conflict and completing the country’s transition to democracy. Both sets of elections were won by the pro-Hutu CNDD-FDD, which outperformed the pro-Hutu FRODEBU party of the transition president, Domitien Ndayizeye.

Sinduhije told CPJ that his station gave all of the parties 20 minutes of airtime per week during the campaigns. Local sources said much of the communications council’s ire revolved around RPA’s use of a mobile studio for live coverage.

During the municipal elections, Sinduhije said, RPA used its mobile studio to provide live campaign coverage of the five parties it considered to be the most important. He said communications council Chairman Jean-Pierre Manda had praised RPA’s coverage.

For the parliamentary vote, Sinduhije said, the mobile studio covered public campaign rallies of the CNDD-FDD and a small pro-Tutsi party, the MRC, but the other parties had conducted only “house-to-house” campaigning.

In February, the council ordered RPA closed for two days, accusing it of “multiple violations” of the country’s press laws, including “offending public morals” by reporting on the rape of an 8-year-old girl and threatening public security by “deforming” the words of a politician. In September 2003, the station was ordered suspended indefinitely after it broadcast an interview with a rebel spokesman. RPA observed both bans and was later allowed to reopen. It was not immediately clear whether the communications council would enforce its new ban.

“Governments in a free society should not be in the business of deciding the editorial content of a radio station,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “This order should be lifted immediately, and RPA should be allowed to report the news without harassment from authorities.”