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Burundi: Dire need to increase protections for civic space

Burundians protest in London agains the ongoing political violence and human rights violations in their home country, April 2014.
Burundians protest in London agains the ongoing political violence and human rights violations in their home country, April 2014.

Gail-Orenstein/Demotix

ARTICLE 19 is concerned that the government is increasingly becoming hostile towards the media, civil society and opposition political parties in Burundi, as the government seeks Constitutional change by a referendum that would allow the incumbent President to run for a third term in office amid considerable political controversy.

We urge the government to respect the right to freedom of expression and press freedom, or risk dangerously undermining the democratic legitimacy of the current government.

“Journalists play a vital role in a democratic society - ensuring the public are informed, facilitating debate and promoting accountability. Continued attacks and intimidation of human rights defenders and the media to discourage them from reporting or influence their coverage violates constitutional guarantees for free expression and international human rights standards. When the independence of the press is compromised, democracy suffers, which is particularly troubling as we approach the elections” said Henry Maina ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa Director.

“We remain concerned that the legal framework in Burundi fails to provide sufficient safeguards for media freedom. The media law, passed last year, grants the authorities powers which can be used to restrict and even criminalise reporting on matters of public interest” added Maina.

The July 2015 elections will be the third to be held in Burundi since the signing of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement in the year 2000, which brought to an end a seven-year civil war in the country. Under this agreement, President Pierre Nkurunziza, was elected President in 2005, and won a subsequent second five-year term in 2010. The country is facing political crisis as the legality of the President seeking a third term is contested.

RESTRICTIONS ON PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY AND ATTACKS ON MEDIA INDEPENDENCE:

Recently, the Mayor of Bujumbura, Saidi Juma, banned a peaceful protest organised by civil society organisations to commemorate and campaign for justice for Ernest Manirumva, an anti-corruption activist who was murdered on 9th April 2009. Five years since Ernest was killed, nobody has been held accountable.

On Saturday 15 March 2014, the permanent secretary of the National Security Council (CNS), Ildephonse Habarurema delivered a statement congratulating some media organisations for their “role in informing the population” but condemned others for publicising “subversive messages”. CNS is the apex state security body, and constituted by the President and senior ministers. Habarurema voiced particular criticism of Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) in relation to its coverage of a police raid on the headquarters of opposition Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD) party. Journalists affiliated to Radio Isanganiro have experience five attacks in the past 18 months.

ARTICLE 19 is concerned that Habarurema's criticism dangerously and wrongly equates journalism that is critical of the authorities with incitement to overthrow the government. The public criticism of RPA comes on the heels of continued harassment of journalists and media houses covering political events of the opposition parties or giving platforms for civil society to hold public officials accountable.

The CNS statement came just a week after a government spokesperson issued a veiled threat to the media, warning them “to keep in mind that national interest prevails over partisan interest”, especially during the pre-election period. ARTICLE 19 notes that free and fair elections are only possible where the electorate is well informed and has access sufficient information from a plurality of sources and not just by reporting positively on the government of the day. The independence of the media to report a range of views, including those critical of the government, is therefore crucial, and must be respected by the government.

Media independence was further undermined when on 6 March, President Piere Nkurunziza issued a decree that appointed new members to the Communication National Council (CNC), the state agency that oversees the enforcement of media laws. ARTICLE 19 remains deeply concerned that six of the Presidential appointments to the regulatory body are government representatives that could seriously undermine its independence. The nine other members are journalists, but mostly from state broadcasters. The CNC President Richard Giramahoro has made a public declaration that the body is not “there to repress, but to collaborate with media.” Giramahoro is known to have close relations with the ruling party in Burundi, Pour la Défense de la Démocratie–Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie, CNDD–FDD.

The government of Burundi committed in June 2013, through the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism in Geneva, to improve protections for human rights. Burundi received 25 recommendations related to freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of assembly. Concerns raised during the review included attacks, harassment, threats and intimidation of journalists, human rights defenders and opposition parties. ARTICLE 19 notes that despite the commitments made on the international stage, these problems remain unaddressed.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the government of Burundi to stop intimidating journalists, media organisations and civil society organisations, and to safeguard media independence and pluralism. This must include speedy, independent and effective investigations into all acts of violence, intimidation or harassment of the media, bring those responsible to justice and provide redress to victims. The government should issue a clear statement to reassure the media that they will not be penalised for reporting that is critical of the government, the ruling party, or its policies.

CONCERNS OVER MEDIA LEGAL FRAMEWORK:

ARTICLE 19 also remains deeply concerned that the Media Law, which was passed in June 2013, poses a severe threat to press freedom in the country. Provisions in the legislation are overly broad and grant wide discretion to the authorities, threatening the criminalisation of public interest reporting and undermining the protection of journalistic sources. The law also introduces a requirement for journalists to have set levels of education and professional experience, limiting access to the profession unnecessarily, and imposes debilitating fines for the media organisations deemed to be contravening the law.

Earlier this year, the Constitutional Court rejected arguments by the Union of Burundian Journalists (UBJ) that the media law was unconstitutional and that it violated international human rights law, but reduced the level of fines for violations provided for under the law. While this is welcome, the decision did not go far enough to protect media freedom in Burundi. The UBJ is challenging the law in the East African Court of Justice, arguing that it violates the East African Community Treaty.

ARTICLE 19 urges the government of Burundi to review the media law and undertake serious reform to bring that legislation in line with international human rights standards protecting the right to freedom of expression.

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