Tensions between the Burundi government and the local press are bound to increase as several media this week defied an order not to investigate or discuss a recent massacre. While officials say the measure is "temporary" and necessary to safeguard national unity and the course of justice, independent journalists are asserting their right to publish information in the interest of public accountability.
After gunmen burst into a bar September 18 and executed more than 35 patrons in Gatumba, a village in northwest Burundi near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, the local press focused on interviewing survivors and raising questions about the circumstances of the killings, according to Eric Manirakiza, editor-in-chief of leading independent broadcaster Radio Publique Africaine.
However, on September 20, Burundi's National Security Council issued a press statement in which it accused "certain media" of "wishing to take advantage of this situation to sow confusion, divide the population and incite to confrontation." Such media reporting "disorients" the public and "blurs" the ongoing investigations, the government said. The following day, Communication Minister Concilie Nibigira issued a memo to media outlets stating, "It is forbidden to all broadcast and print press to publish, comment or analyze the ongoing investigations in relation with the Gatumba carnage."
In interviews this week, Burundian officials said allowing the media to freely report on the massacre would hinder the official investigation. "Media can influence the commission of inquiry. It is not time for the press to publicize their findings. If they start reporting their news, they can influence public opinion," Nibigira told CPJ. She said the censorship measure would only be in effect during the one month mandated for investigation. "What we forbid is the daily coverage," said Burundi government spokesman Philippe Nzobonariba, "It sows discord and cacophony."
The officials alluded to the country's recent history of ethnic violence during the 13-year civil war that ended in 2005 with a fragile peace agreement. Since tumultuous May 2010 elections, in which President Pierre Nkurunziza ran unopposed following a boycott by the opposition, violence has resurged with a wave of political murders.
But Thursday, five radio stations, including Radio Isanganiro, and private television channel Renaissance TV defied the government ban and discussed the shooting, Agence France-Presse reported. Nibigira said authorities would investigate the breach of its order, saying the government's "decision must be respected," AFP reported.
Journalists say reporting on the incident or the follow-up inquiry can put light on facts the government does not want to make public.
"There have been many similar cases [of killings] in Gatumba but investigations have been disappointing," said Patrick Mitabaro, news editor at Radio Isanganiro, adding that the station doesn't aspire to solve the investigation but has a right to cover it. "We disagree with this decision of the government," said Jean-Jacques Ntamagara, President of Burundi's association of radio broadcasters, ABR. Emelyne Muhorakeye, editor-in-chief of Renaissance TV, said the censorship order on the Gatumba killings is unprecedented, as the press has been reporting on a wave of unsolved political murders since the May 2010 elections. "The government is using this situation to prevent us from doing our job as we would like to carry it out," she said.
Independent journalists like Muhorakeye and Mitabaro believe the censorship order is part of an ongoing effort by government to silence critical reporting on sensitive issues such as corruption and criminality. In recent months, authorities have censored radio programs or threatened censorship, and public prosecutors have issued judicial summons to several journalists.