Online journalist finally released in Burundi

New York, May 17, 2011The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes the release of online editor Jean-Claude Kavumbagu of Net Press on Monday but still questions the original charges placed against him. The High Court dropped charges of treason on May 13 but sentenced Kavumbagu to eight months in prison and a fine of 100,000 Burundian francs (US$80) for publishing “information that discredits the state and economy,” according to defense lawyer Gabriel Sinarinzi. Authorities released Kavumbagu on Monday since he had already spent 10 months at Mpimba Prison in the capital, Bujumbura. 

“While we are very relieved to hear Kavumbagu was finally released, there were no grounds to hold him in preventive detention in the first place,” said CPJ East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes. “Authorities must end criminal prosecutions against press offenses and allow critical reporting without resorting to intimidation tactics.”

Authorities detained Kavumbagu on July 17, 2010, and charged him with treason for an opinion piece that questioned whether the state security forces could defend the country if attacked by a terrorist threat. Kavumbagu had published the article on July 12, 2010, one day after Somali insurgents Al-Shabaab hit neighboring Kampala, Uganda, in a terrorist bomb attack. Treason charges are, however, only applicable during times of war, Sinarinzi told CPJ.

The prosecution also placed Kavumbagu in preventive detention, a ruling that can only be applied if the accused had jumped bail before. Five consecutive governments have arrested Kavumabgu for his critical reporting, he told CPJ, and in none of these cases has the online journalist been condemned or posed a flight risk.

Despite spending his longest period under detention at Mpimba Prison, a facility designed for 800 inmates but houses 3,500, Kavumbagu plans to start work again at Net Press next week. “Right now, though, I am just happy to be back with my family, playing with my children,” he told CPJ.