Agnès Ndirubusa, a senior political reporter for independent Burundian online outlet Iwacu, is serving a 2.5-year prison sentence after she was convicted of attempting to undermine state security alongside three colleagues: broadcast reporter Christine Kamikazi, English-language reporter Egide Harerimana, and photojournalist Térence Mpozenzi.
Police detained the Iwacu journalists, along with a driver Adolphe Masabarikiza, on October 22, 2019, 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.
Before traveling to Bubanza, the outlet had notified provincial authorities of their intention to cover the clashes, Mubazumutima told CPJ.
On October 23, 2019, 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 26, 2019, the team was brought to court and ordered to be held in Bubanza prison, pending investigations by the prosecutor into allegations of undermining state security, according to Iwacu. On October 31, 2019, 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, 2019, 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.”
On November 4, 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.
On December 30, 2019, during a trial that lasted about two hours, authorities changed the charges against the four journalists and their driver from undermining state security to “an impossible attempt” to undermine state security, according to reports by Iwacu and a statement issued by a group of United Nations experts.
The journalists and driver were not given an opportunity to prepare a defense against the new charges, according to Iwacu. According to Burundi’s penal code, “an impossible attempt” occurs when an accused does everything in their power to commit a crime, but fails due to a factor beyond their control of which they were unaware.
As evidence, prosecutors relied on a WhatsApp message that Ndirubusa sent to a journalist abroad, saying that she was going to Musigati to “support the rebels,” and claimed that this message was evidence that the journalists were cooperating with the rebels, according to Iwacu’s account of the trial and other media reports.
Ndirubusa explained this message as dark humor between journalists, alleged that the prosecution had not produced other messages that were critical of the rebels, and said prosecutors had failed to provide any evidence from her phone that she was in touch with the rebels, Iwacu reported.
During the December 30 hearing, the prosecutor requested a 15-year jail term for the journalists and that they be stripped of their voting rights, according to The Associated Press. On January 30, 2020, the four journalists were sentenced to 2.5 years in prison and a fine of $530 each while the driver, Masabarikiza, was acquitted, according to Iwacu. On June 5, 2020, a court rejected their appeal according to a press statement by the outlet.
In late 2020 the four journalists were detained in Bubanza prison, according to Iwacu and Leandre Sikuyavuga, the outlet’s editorial director, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app. Sikuyavuga told CPJ that the journalists are restricted from receiving visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that authorities had not established channels for the detainees to communicate with the outside world.
The editorial director said that the journalists were detained in cramped conditions, held 12 to a cell that is meant to accommodate only four people, and that the prison food was so unpalatable that they were forced to purchase their own groceries and cook their own meals in their cells. Sikuyavuga told CPJ in late 2020 that each of the four journalists had been treated for malaria by the prison clinic at least twice.
On July 16, CPJ wrote an open letter to Burundi’s newly-elected president, Évariste Ndayishimiye, calling for the release of the four Iwacu journalists, but did not receive any response.
Presidential spokesperson Jean Claude Karerwa Ndenzako and presidential adviser Willy Nyamitwe did not respond to September and November 2020 emails from CPJ, asking for comment including on the conditions under which the journalists were detained. A November email sent to Burundi’s presidency also went unanswered. Bankumukunzi, the president of the government media regulator, did not respond to WhatsApp messages from CPJ in September and November 2020.