Police arrested Agnès Ndirubusa, a senior political reporter for independent Burundian online outlet Iwacu, on October 22, 2019, along with Iwacu broadcast reporter Christine Kamikazi, English-language reporter Egide Harerimana, photojournalist Térence Mpozenzi, and Adolphe Masabarikiza, their driver. Masabarikiza was released unconditionally on November 20, but the four journalists remain detained while prosecutors investigate allegations that they undermined state security.
Police detained the team in Burundi’s northwest Bubanza province, while they were covering clashes between security forces and armed men who had crossed the border into Burundi from the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to the Iwacu’s deputy chief editor, Abbas Mbazumutima, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app, and reports by the independent news website SOS Médias Burundi.
Police arrested the team while they were collecting witness reports in the district of Musigati, Mbazumutima told CPJ. Police officers forced the journalists onto motorbikes and took them to a police station about 15 kilometers away, and officers forced the journalists’ driver to follow in their company vehicle, Mbazumutima said.
Police officers slapped Kamikazi on the face during the arrest, and officers confiscated the team’s phones, according to a report by Iwacu.
On October 23, police officers interrogated the news team but did not announce any charges against them, according to the Iwacu report. Before traveling to Bubanza, the outlet had notified provincial authorities of their intention to cover the clashes, Mubazumutima told CPJ.
On October 23, police claimed they could not release the team from the provincial-level police station because two of the phones they confiscated were “missing” and that local officers were waiting for a “decision from above,” according to the Iwacu report. Mbazumutima told CPJ that police had forced the journalists to reveal their passwords for the phones, and said officers extracted information from the devices, which they then used to interrogate the journalists. Police questioned Ndirubusa extensively about her interactions with various people whose contacts she had saved on her phone, Mbazumutima said.
On October 25, the journalists and their driver were transferred to a local prison that had cramped conditions and no electricity or plumbing, according to Mbazumutima and a report by Iwacu.
The following day, they were brought to court and were remanded to Bubanza prison, pending investigations by the prosecutor into allegations of undermining state security, according to Iwacu. On October 31, the High Court in Bubanza ruled that the team would remain in pretrial detention because the offenses of which they stand accused carry a prison term of more than one year, and said that they could appeal this decision within five days, Iwacu reported.
In a statement issued on October 31, which CPJ reviewed, Burundian Attorney General Sylvestre Nyandwi claimed that the team was arrested because they had prior knowledge of the clashes and said that they were being held in “preventive detention.”
The journalists and their driver face between five and 10 years in prison if charged and convicted of undermining state security, according to a report by Agence France-Presse.
On November 4, 2019, the journalists’ lawyers filed an application with the Court of Appeal of Ntahangwa, in the capital Bujumbura, according to SOS Médias Burundi.
On November 20, the appeals court ordered the release of Masabarikiza, but kept the four journalists in custody and did not announce the date of a future hearing, according to a report by Iwacu.
Police spokesperson Pierre Nkurikiye responded to CPJ’s October 2019 request for comment by sharing a link of an October 24 YouTube video in which his deputy, Moise Nkurunziza, said that investigations were ongoing against the journalists. Nkurunziza said that the journalists would be released if they had not done anything, but otherwise they would be transferred to the custody of the minister of justice.
CPJ’s calls and text messages to Nestor Bankumukunzi, the president of Burundi’s media regulator, the National Council of Communication, went unanswered. CPJ texted Nyandwi, who declined to comment.