Reporters Without Borders is relieved by online newspaper editor Jean-Claude Kavumbagu’s release yesterday after being acquitted on a charge of treason for questioning in an article whether Burundi would be able to protect itself against a terrorist attack by Somalia’s Islamist militia Al-Shabaab. Prosecutors had requested a life sentence last month on 13 April.
When dismissing the treason charge on 13 May, the Bujumbura court nonetheless sentenced Kavumbagu to eight months in prison and a fine of 100,000 Burundian francs (50 euros) on a lesser charge of publishing an article “liable to undermine the state’s credibility and national economy.” He was immediately freed because he had spent more than 10 months in pre-trial detention.
“My article just expressed an opinion,” Kavumbagu told Reporters Without Borders as he left prison. “It is normal for the public to ask questions. I just did my job as a journalist, without accusing anyone. It is time the government kept its promises and stopped bringing criminal prosecutions over press cases.”
Kavumbagu, who edits the online newspaper Net Press, added: “By prosecuting a journalist one month after a national conference on media and communication in March, the Burundian authorities flagrantly contradicted their statements.”
Despite the arbitrary eight-month jail sentence, Kavumbagu said he planned to immediately resume working as a journalist and fighting for the decriminalization of media offences. “The permission the government gave to journalists to hold peaceful demonstrations on World Press Freedom Day already represents a step towards decriminalization. The government will gradually drop this practice and will change the press law.”
Kavumbagu thanked the organizations, including Reporters Without Borders and Burundi’s journalists, which gave him their moral support while he was in prison.
While relieved by Kavumbagu’s release, Reporters Without Borders points out that there were absolutely no grounds for him to have been held for 10 months. The case comes at a particularly bad time for the media in Burundi, with press freedom violations on the increase. Privately-owned radio stations are often urged to censor themselves and phone-in programmes are sabotaged.
Eric Manirakiza, the manager of Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), said the two phone lines to the station’s studio were disconnected for seven days from 2 May, probably on the orders of the National Telecommunications Office to prevent listeners from participating in live phone-in programmes. The previous week, the station’s programme “Kabizi” was suspended by the National Communication Council from 26 to 29 April for “uncontrolled excesses.”
Four RPA journalists – Raymon Zirampaye, Domithile Kiramvu, Bonfils Niyongere and Philbert Musobozi – are due to appear before a Bujumbura court for the third time on 9 June on charges of defaming and insulting Mayor Evrard Giswaswa in a series of reports beginning on 18 October 2010 about a brawl in which he was allegedly involved.
Radio Isanganiro, another privately-owned station, is also being targeted by the authorities. Its editor in chief, Patrick Mitabaro, was summoned before the Bujumbura state prosecutor on 3 May for interviewing a government opponent in exile.
The station’s fulltime correspondent in the central province of Mwaro, Laurent Ndikuriyo, was summoned before the province’s deputy prosecutor on 9 May for reporting four days earlier that a teacher was being investigated for falsifying a transfer order. Ndikuriyo was released after interrogation but was told to remain available for further questioning.