Campaign groups have demanded the immediate release of four journalists in Burundi who were arrested exactly a year ago.
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the four journalists who have been detained arbitrarily for the past year are victims of the East African country’s draconian curbs on the freedom to inform.
Employed by Iwacu, one of Burundi’s last bastions of freely reported news, journalists Agnès Ndirubusa, Christine Kamikazi, Egide Harerimana and Térence Mpozenzi were arrested on 22 October 2019 after travelling to the northwest of the country to cover an incursion by a group of Burundian rebels based in the east of the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.
The incursion led to clashes with then-President Pierre Nkurunziza’s armed forces.
In January 2020, they were sentenced to 30 months in prison on a charge of “attempted complicity in a violation of state security” – a sentence upheld on appeal six months later. It was nonetheless made clear during the original trial and the appeal hearing that the four reporters had absolutely no links with the rebel group, and just did their job by going into the field to cover a major news story.
Their hoped-for release after President Nkurunziza’s death on 8 June 2020 and Évariste Ndayishimiye’s succession as president ten days later has so far failed to materialize and they are now “dispirited,” according to Iwacu editor Antoine Kaburahe, who has lived in self-imposed exile since being threatened during the political crisis in 2015.
On the first anniversary of their arrest, 65 organizations call for their immediate and unconditional release.
A statement by Human Rights Watch (HRW) said their “continued detention on baseless charges is a stark reminder that, despite a recent change in leadership, the Burundian government has little tolerance for independent journalism and free speech”.
The group added, “on 22 October 2019, the four journalists were arrested along with their driver Adolphe Masabarakiza as they went to report on clashes between the security forces and an armed group in Bubanza province. Although they had informed the provincial authorities of their plan to travel to the area, they were arrested on arrival and later accused of threatening internal state security. However, during the trial, the prosecution presented no evidence of the journalists having any contact with the armed group.
“Although they were charged with complicity in threatening the internal security of the state, Ndirubusa, Kamikazi, Harerimana and Mpozenzi were ultimately convicted of attempting to commit the crime, a lesser criminal offense. Their lawyers say that they were not informed of the change to the charge prior to the verdict or allowed to defend themselves against it in court, violating fair trial standards. All four were sentenced to two and a half years in prison and fined one million Burundian francs (approximately 525 USD). Masabarakiza, who had been provisionally released in November 2019, was acquitted. Ndirubusa, Kamikazi, Harerimana and Mpozenzi appealed their conviction, but in its 4 June decision, the Ntahangwa Court of Appeal upheld the verdict.
“The message sent by the courts is an attempt to intimidate and threaten other journalists from doing their work and reporting on what is happening inside the country, the organizations said. The conviction and continued detention of the four journalists also runs counter to Burundi’s constitutional guarantees on freedom of expression, as well as regional and international obligations in accordance with Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is particularly inconsistent with the African Commission’s 2019 Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, which specifically provides that states shall take measures to prevent “arbitrary arrest and detention” of journalists.
“Iwacu is one of the few remaining independent media houses operational in Burundi. Hundreds of journalists and human rights defenders have fled the country since the start of the political crisis in 2015 and those still working in the country often face threats and harassment. Releasing Ndirubusa, Kamikazi, Harerimana and Mpozenzi would be an important first step towards reopening civic space and recognizing the contribution of reliable media reporting in ensuring access to information for all Burundians.”
Signatories to the call include ACAT-Burundi (Action des chrétiens pour l’abolition de la torture); Amnesty International; ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa; Association Burundaise pour la Protection des Droits Humains et des Personnes Détenues (APRODH); Association des journalistes indépendants du Bénin; Bloggers Association of Kenya; Burundi Human Rights Initiative; Cellule Norbert Zongo pour le journalisme d’investigation en Afrique de l’Ouest; Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy; CNCD-11.11.11; and Coalition Burundaise des Défenseurs des Droits de l’Homme.
Others are Coalition Burundaise pour la Cour Pénale Internationale (CB-CPI); Coalition de la Société Civile pour le Monitoring Electoral (COSOME); Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA); Collectif des Avocats pour la défense des victimes de crimes de droit international commis au Burundi (CAVIB); Committee to Protect Journalists; Community Empowerment for Progress Organization-CEPO, South Sudan; Congress of African Journalists; Consortium of Ethiopian Human Rights Organizations (CEHRO); Defend Defenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project); Eastern Africa Journalists Network (EAJN); European Network for Central Africa (EurAc); Fédération internationale des ACAT (FIACAT); Federation of African Journalists (FAJ); Federation of Somali Journalists (FESOJ) and FIDH, in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.
The signatories also include Forum pour la Conscience et le Développement (FOCODE); Forum pour le Renforcement de la Société Civile (FORSC); The Ghanaian PEN Centre; Human Rights Network for Journalists- Uganda; Human Rights Watch; International Service for Human Rights (ISHR); Kenya Correspondents Association; Kenya Editors’ Guild; Kenya Union of Journalists; Laws and Rights Awareness Initiative (LRAI); Ligue Burundaise des droits de l’homme Iteka; Ligue des journalistes Tchadiens (LJT); La Maison de la presse du Niger; Media Council of Tanzania; Media Institute of Southern Africa; Mouvement des Femmes et Filles pour la Paix et la Sécurité au Burundi (MFFPS); Mouvement Inamahoro Femmes & Filles pour la Paix & la Securite; National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders – Uganda; Observatoire de la lutte contre la corruption et les malversations économiques (OLUCOME); Ökumenisches Netz Zentralafrika (ÖNZ); One Day Seyoum; OpenNet Africa; Organisation Patronale des Médias du Gabon (OPAM); Paradigm Initiative; PEN International; PEN Nigeria; PEN South Africa; PEN Zimbabwe; Reporters sans Frontières (RSF); Réseau des Citoyens Probes (RCP); SOS-Torture/Burundi; Syndicat National des Journalistes Indépendants du Togo (SYNJIT); Syndicat Professionnels Information Communication Sénégal (Synpics); Tournons la Page – Burundi; Tournons la Page International; TRIAL International; Ugandan PEN; Union Burundaise des Journalistes; and World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.
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