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Alexandre Niyungeko, of the Burundi Union of Journalists, speaks out over the restrictive press law. (IWACU)

Burundi's journalist union takes repressive press law to court

By Tom Rhodes/East Africa Representative on September 19, 2014 1:15 PM ET

If the state decides that a journalist's article in Burundi jeopardizes someone's "moral integrity" under the country's Media Law it can demand that the journalist reveals sources, and it can suspend the publication. "It's a backwards, freedom-killing law," said Alexandre Niyungeko, the founder and head of the 300-member Burundi Union of Journalists. Despite the press fraternity's best efforts, including an appeal replete with 15,000 signatures from organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, urging the president to desist from signing it, President Pierre Nkurunziza passed the bill into law on June 4, 2013.

Ruling party officials claim that the law helps "professionalize" the media and curb reporting that incites hatred in a country where about 300,000 people have died in ethnic clashes between 1994 and 2005, according to news reports. However, it prevents the press from reporting on issues including national defense and state security by imposing fines of up to $6,000 and prison terms, according to news reports.

Burundi journalists view the legislation as a tool to curb investigative reporting by using its sweeping terms to jail critics, upholding difficult professional requirements such as making all journalists have a university degree, and weakening the protection of sources. Burundi journalists have already faced at least four cases where state prosecutors have demanded information about sources since the law was passed, local journalists told me. In April, for example, authorities twice summoned Radio Bonesha reporter Alexis Nkeshimana and Radio Publique Africaine reporter Eloge Niyonzima, demanding that the journalists named sources quoted in stories about the alleged distribution of weapons to a youth movement affiliated to the ruling party, the National Council of Defense of Democracy - Forces for the Defense of Democracy, the same sources told me. The journalists, who both work for independent stations, were forced to reveal their contacts, who have now been summoned by a judge to the next court session, Radio Bonesha director Patrick Nduwimana said. The final hearing is due in January.

The requirement compelling journalists to reveal their sources, which carries a prison term of up to five years for those who refuse, has scared away potential informants for the media, preventing the press from holding public figures to account. Yet despite the potential risks journalists face under this legislation, Burundi's plucky independent press continues to cover sensitive issues, and is challenging the law in court.

After a July 2013 constitutional challenge resulted in only minor amendments, the Burundi Union of Journalists linked up with the Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI), an organization that provides legal defense for independent media, to launch a legal challenge at the East African Court of Justice. Working with lead Kenyan lawyer Donald Deya and Burundian lawyers Armel Niyongere and François Nyamoya, the union and MLDI started the hearing on Thursday at the court's headquarters in Arusha, Tanzania.

MLDI legal director Nani Jansen hopes that the regional court grants the request to repeal the law, and that a positive ruling will influence other countries who harbor similar anti-press laws. "It would send a strong signal that these laws violate international standards," Jansen said. "This will hopefully be a deterrent for other governments to keep such legislation on the books, as well as encouragement for the press that such bad laws actually can be challenged."

The court's decision, expected in February or March next year, is binding in East African Community partner states such as Burundi.


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