Jailed Burundian journalist acquitted; two others arrested

New York, March 18, 2009–A Burundian online journalist jailed since last September was acquitted today, according to local journalists. In a separate case on Tuesday, however, authorities detained two journalists covering the activities of a former CPJ Press Freedom Award winner, according to the same sources. 

Police in the northern province of Ngozi arrested reporters Emmanuel Ndayishimiye and Juma Zuberi and driver Aimé Masabo, all from the private broadcasting network Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), journalists told CPJ. Alexis Sinduhije, the founder of RPA and a politician, was released from prison just last week, and was traveling in a second car along with the journalists. They were returning from the neighboring Kirundo province where Sinduhije had gone to support the family of an arrested party member.

Sinduhije said that police searched the journalists’ vehicle at least three times before they claimed to discover an AK-47 assault rifle in the car. The politician was released late this afternoon, but the journalists, their driver, and four others, including a soldier who said the journalists picked him up on the road, were expected to remain in overnight custody.

“We are greatly troubled by these arrests,” said CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, Tom Rhodes. “They have the chilling effect on the media from covering the activities of a dissident politician. We call for the immediate release of Emmanuel Ndayishimiye, Juma Zuberi, and Aimé Masabo.

Meanwhile, in the capital, Bujumbura, a panel of judges dismissed criminal defamation charges today against Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, the editor of online news agency Net Press, defense lawyer Gabriel Sinarinzi told CPJ. Kavumbagu was expected to be released tomorrow pending administrative formalities, he said. He has been jailed for six months.

Speaking to CPJ from the Mpimba Prison today, Kavumbagu said he credited his acquittal to local and international pressure.

“We welcome the release of Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, who should have never spent six months behind bars,” said CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, Tom Rhodes. “Government officials shouldn’t be filing criminal defamation cases against the press.”

Kavumbagu was arrested on September 11, 2008, over an article quoting unnamed government sources as saying that President Pierre Nkurunziza may have spent US$100,000 during his trip to the 2008 summer Olympics in China. Burundi Secretary General Philippe Nzobonariba, who filed the complaint, contended that the president had only spent half the amount, according to local news reports.

When CPJ conducted its annual census of journalists imprisoned worldwide for their work as of December 1, 2008, Kavumbagu was the only online journalist behind bars in Sub-Saharan Africa. The jailing of online journalists is a growing trend worldwide, according to CPJ research.