As recently as April, the state prosecutor in Burundi demanded journalist Jean-Claude Kavumbagu be put away for life. But just a month later, Africa’s only jailed online journalist was a free man. A relentless international campaign by press freedom groups, human rights activists and Western governments had paid off.
“I am so grateful to you all,” said Kavumbagu, who is still coming to terms with freedom after 10 months in an overcrowded prison in the capital, Bujumbura. The High Court dropped charges of treason on May 13 and sentenced Kavumbagu to eight months in prison for publishing “information that discredits the state and economy.” He was freed for time served.
After the initial elation of seeing family, friends and colleagues, Kavumbagu told CPJ he was saddened to see the state of the offices of his online news site Net Press.
“Computers are not working, the office car is broken down which is hampering work,” he said. “For the moment, I’m focused on getting everything back up and running.”
Kavumbagu was arrested over an unbylined article that questioned the competence of the armed forces in the wake of July 11, 2010, bombings in Somalia, where Burundi has troops. But he thinks his imprisonment was retaliation for 10 years of criticism of the former Hutu rebels now in government. Net Press called the rebels “genocidal terrorists” for their treatment of minority Tutsi civilians during the civil war that finally reached a ceasefire agreement in 2003.
Kavumbagu vowed to go on publishing and writing whatever he deemed newsworthy. In particular he plans to write a series on prison conditions, having just spent nearly a year locked up with common criminals in Mpimba Prison, which was built for 800 inmates but currently houses 3,500.
“My plan is to draw attention to this and get the authorities to put it right,” he said.
Although Kavumbagu remains undaunted by his time behind bars, he does see the need to choose his words carefully.
Asked whether he would avoid writing about sensitive subjects in the future, Kavumbagu said: “Here in our country there are no taboo subjects. When I was arrested I wasn’t condemned for having written this or that. The authorities criticized the way the article was written. So maybe it will be a question of writing the same thing but choosing different words to express it.”