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Rights Group Says Press Freedom at Risk in Burundi

Human Rights Watch says the government of Burundi has been intensifying pressure on journalists. The group says reporters have been threatened with legal action for reports implicating state authorities in recent acts of violence.

On September 18 of this year, gunmen burst into a bar in the town of Gatumba, ordered the customers inside to get down on the floor, and then opened fire. Nearly 40 people were killed.

Immediately after the incident, now referred to as the “Gatumba Massacre,” Burundi's government ordered a 30-day media ban, barring journalists from reporting on the event while investigations were underway.

When the 30-day blackout ended, a few media organizations began reporting on the massacre.

Carina Tertsakian, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, says there was one report in particular that seemed to strike a nerve.

“I think one of the aspects that particularly upset the government was that the radio station broadcast an interview with one of the suspects accused of involvement in the Gatumba massacre, a man who is currently in prison. And he was interviewed and he stated that members of the security forces and intelligence services may have been involved - not necessarily in the massacre itself - but in events that led up to the massacre,” Tertsakian said.

Earlier this month, Burundi's National Security Council released a statement warning the media that by citing a defendant in the case, they are in violation of the country's criminal code.

Bob Rugurika is the editor in chief of Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), the station that broadcast the interview implicating state agents in the Gatumba shooting.

He and a colleague were interrogated by police for 10 hours because of the interview.

"They said that we should be punished with five years in prison. It was terrible, it was somehow unimaginable. But with advocates we have been able to show that the law permits that here in Burundi,” Rugurika said.

The interrogations go beyond the massacre. Police have also questioned Rugurika and another RPA journalist about their reporting on a police raid on a university last month in which two students were killed.

Overall, he has been interrogated eight times in the past four months.

“We are feeling persecuted, we are feeling in danger. Here, the police, and some agents of the intelligence service are somehow brutal. Sometimes they kill, sometimes they arrest with no respect of law,” Rugurika said.

We have attempted to contact Burundian government officials for this story. The officials could not be reached for comment.

Tertsakian, of Human Rights Watch, says the recent crackdown on journalists in Burundi is part of a broader pattern of harassment of the media.

“What is happening is that the government does not seem to respect the role of the independent media to report on these things. Instead, they often equate these radio stations with the political opposition. So they've often accused journalists and even human rights organizations of being part of the political opposition,” Tertsakian said.

Burundi launched its own inquiry into the Gatumba massacre in September. Twenty-one suspects are on trial, with proceedings set to resume on December 1.

Burundi has been relatively peaceful since a rebel group called the Forces for National Liberation laid down its arms in 2009 after 20 years of war.