Under fire for alleged corruption and human rights abuses, the government of former rebel leader Pierre Nkurunziza cracked down on a wide range of critical voices, including those in the press, during its first year in power. Authorities imprisoned a journalist for five months after he allegedly slandered the state in a private barroom conversation, and they launched a vicious campaign of harassment, threats, and intimidation against three independent radio stations, including Radio Publique Africaine (RPA). Government threats against RPA Director Alexis Sinduhije, who won a CPJ International Press Freedom Award in 2004, drove him into hiding. Journalists said the government used the existence of an alleged coup plot as a pretext to silence dissent, including critical reports by the independent media.
The government stepped up its campaign against the radio stations in November, jailing Editor Serge Nibizi and reporter Domitile Kiramvu of RPA and Director Matthias Manirakiza of Radio Isanganiro for stories about the alleged coup plot. The detentions made Burundi Africa’s third leading jailer of journalists, after Eritrea and Ethiopia, when CPJ conducted its annual survey of journalists jailed for their work.
Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD party, formerly the biggest Hutu rebel group battling a minority Tutsi dictatorship, came to power in a 2005 general election, raising hopes of lasting peace and democracy after more than a decade of brutal civil war. The election was the culmination of a lengthy transition backed by the United Nations and South Africa, which in 2000 had mediated a peace accord. In September 2006, the last remaining rebel group, known as the FNL, signed a cease-fire agreement with the government. However, a report by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in October noted heightened political tensions, “particularly following the government’s allegations of a coup plot and the resignation of … Second Vice President Alice Nzomukunda on September 5.”
Nzomukunda had accused the administration of gross human rights abuses, and was particularly critical of the CNDD-FDD’s president, Hussein Rajabu. The U.N. report also noted strained relations between the government and the media, and that “in a speech on September 3, the CNDD-FDD party president accused the Burundian media and journalists … of ’divisiveness.’” Divisiveness is often political code in Burundi for stoking tension between Hutus and Tutsis.
Announcing a foiled coup plot, the government in August jailed several leading opposition figures, including the previous transition president, Domitien Ndayizeye. Also in August, police raided the home of RPA head Sinduhije, forcing him into temporary hiding. Authorities said the raid was linked to investigations of the alleged coup plot, but Sinduhije said the allegations were being used as a pretext to curtail the press and the opposition. “They are trying to shut me up,” he told CPJ in a telephone interview while in hiding. Citing the nonpayment of broadcast license fees, the government also suspended local broadcasts of RPA in the northern province of Ngozi. Several local sources told CPJ the move was in retaliation for RPA’s critical reporting. The ban was lifted following local and international protests.
But RPA and two other independent stations, Radio Isanganiro and Radio Bonesha, remained in the government’s line of fire, especially after they questioned the truth of the alleged coup plot. Pressure intensified after the stations broadcast an interview at the end of August with one of the political detainees, who stated that he had been coerced into confessing that he had taken part in the plot. Sinduhije went into hiding again in September, denouncing a campaign of threats and harassment against himself, his staff, and his radio station. CPJ sources in Bujumbura confirmed that RPA had been subjected to intimidation and harassment, and that government officials had accused the station of working for the opposition.
Worryingly, officials raised the specter of ethnic violence to justify their action. In an interview with CPJ in September, Communications Minister Karenga Ramadhani likened RPA to Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, the station that incited genocide in neighboring Rwanda in 1994, saying that RPA had broadcast false allegations against him. RPA had become one of Burundi’s most popular radio stations and had worked to heal the country’s ethnic divisions, notably by recruiting staff from both ethnic groups.
Pro-government media, and particularly the Web site of the ruling CNDD-FDD party, ran articles smearing Sinduhije and Gabriel Nikundana, editor of Radio Isanganiro. Nikundana also complained of threats. The harassment continued in October, when the state prosecutor questioned reporters from RPA, Radio Isanganiro, and Radio Bonesha, along with their editors, about sources for another story broadcast in August. The story, carried by all three broadcasters, said that elements within the police had prepared fake attacks on the presidential palace and on Rajabu’s residence to bolster the government’s claims that it had foiled a coup plot. The information was attributed to police sources, according to the BBC’s monitoring service.
The government’s crackdown was not limited to the private press. In June, a correspondent for the state news agency Agence Burundaise de Presse, Aloys Kabura, was jailed in the northern province of Ngozi after he publicly criticized police for having beaten journalists in April.
His remarks were made during a barroom conversation with a state intelligence agent. The government alleged that Kabura’s comments included a slur, which he denied, according to his lawyer. On September 18, after having already served more than three months in detention, Kabura was sentenced to five months in jail for slandering the state, according to media reports and his lawyer. He was released on October 30.
In April, police besieged and attacked journalists who refused to hand over recordings of a press conference held by ousted ruling party politician Mathias Basabose in a house in Bujumbura. Security forces surrounded the house immediately after the press conference concluded, preventing more than 30 reporters and human rights activists from leaving for more than seven hours. One female journalist was hospitalized, according to her colleagues.