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.
The African Union's special rapporteur on freedom of expression and access to information, Commissioner Pansy Tlakula, has launched an auspicious initiative in East Africa to counter criminal defamation and sedition laws. Since independence, authorities and business interests in the East and Horn region have used criminal laws on sedition, libel, and insult--often relics of former, colonial administrations--to silence their critics in the press. "Criminal defamation laws are nearly always used to punish legitimate criticism of powerful people, rather than protect the right to a reputation," Tlakula said in a statement.
Burundi's government took unusually swift action last week in response to the police shooting of a radio reporter, after the journalist sought information at a roadblock in the capital Bujumbura where market vendors were allegedly being "taxed" for passage. Perhaps the shooting could have been averted if authorities had bothered to discipline officers involved in previous attacks on journalists.
On Tuesday, Burundi's press corps did what it has done for the past three weeks: protest the imprisonment of one of its own. Hassan Ruvakuki is a reporter jailed since November 28, 2011 on anti-state charges; for the first time, the journalists wore white t-shirts showing Ruvakuki in his green prison uniform. But this time, the reaction by police caught journalists by surprise.
At 8 o'clock Tuesday morning roughly 50 Burundian journalists silently marched around the courthouses in the capital, Bujumbura, and the offices of the justice minister, protesting the imprisonment of their colleague, Hassan Ruvakuki.
"They sentenced him to three years without following the law," said Patrick Nduwimana, one of the protest organizers and the interim director of local private radio station Bonesha FM. A week earlier, on Tuesday, January 8, an appeals court in Burundi had sentenced Ruvakuki, a reporter for Bonesha FM and the French government-backed Radio France Internationale, to three years imprisonment for "working with a criminal group."
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.
It's possible that no journalist in the world has received more court summonses in recent weeks than Editor Bob Rugurika of Burundi's Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), a station founded by CPJ award-winner Alexis Sinduhije.
On Tuesday, for the fifth time since July 18, Rugurika was interrogated by a magistrate in the capital, Bujumbura, about programs aired by his station, according to news reports and CPJ research. The magistrate allegedly asked Rugurika to "correct" a broadcast that pointed out that a 1996 U.N. report had implicated an official involved in the setting up of Burundi's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in a massacre, RPA Editor-in-Chief Eric Manirakiza told CPJ.
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