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Human Rights Groups Concerned Over Crackdown on Journalists

International media watch dogs and human rights groups say the governments of two African countries contributing troops to the African Union mission in Somalia are increasingly using concerns about national security and terrorism as excuses to curb free speech and stifle the media.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, and the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project say they are alarmed by recent detentions of journalists in Burundi and Uganda. The two countries are the only African nations contributing troops to an African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, which is fighting to protect Somalia's U.N.-backed government and to keep a vital area of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, from falling into the hands of Islamist insurgents. The mission is largely funded and supported by the United States.

In what the organizations describe as one of the most "egregious" cases, a journalist in Burundi was arrested last week and charged with treason for an article he wrote criticizing Burundi's military force and questioning their ability to defend the country against a terrorist attack. The article was in response to the 11 Jul twin suicide bombings that killed more than 70 people in Kampala, Uganda. Government officials in Burundi have charged that the aim of the article was to weaken national security.

Somalia's al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab group said it carried out the attack to punish Uganda for sending troops to Somalia. Al-Shabab warned that it would next target Burundi's capital, Bujumbura, because of Burundi's participation in the same mission.

Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that police in Kampala have arrested a radio journalist with Kingdom FM for a remark he made during a press conference that was perceived as being critical of Ugandan forces. He joins another Ugandan journalist jailed more than a year ago on charges of conspiring to overthrow the government. The journalist, Patrick Otim, hosted a radio program that was critical of the government.

The Nairobi-based spokesman for the Committee to Protect Journalists, Tom Rhodes, says there is concern that Burundi and Uganda are moving away from their commitment to democratic values and principles.

"To be fair to the East African countries, the same kind of situation happened in America after 9/11," said Rhodes. "We saw a major crackdown on civil liberties and press freedom within the States. Of course, it is a very scary time and I sympathize very much so with the people in Uganda, in particular at the moment, after that dreadful bombings. But it is a situation where one has to balance what is a reasonable security concern and what is unreasonable."

Some human rights groups say they fear the detentions signal a broader effort by leaders in Burundi and Uganda to use issues of national security as an excuse to curtail political dissent.

Late last month, Burundian President Pierre Nkunrunziza won re-election after six opposition candidates pulled out of the race alleging massive fraud. The lead-up to the presidential election was marred by violence, intimidation, grenade attacks and the burning of offices of the ruling party. International observers also were critical of massive arrests of opposition supporters.

Dissent has also been growing in Uganda against President Yoweri Museveni, who has dominated politics in the country for 24 years. Next month, Uganda's diverse opposition parties are expected to announce a joint candidate to challenge Mr. Museveni in next February's presidential election.