(Kampala) - The Burundian authorities should release Jean Claude Kavumbagu, a journalist arrested on treason charges on July 17, 2010, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, and Human Rights Watch said today. The arrest violates his right to free expression, the groups said.
Kavumbagu, editor of the online news service Net Press, is believed to have been arrested for a July 12 article in which he criticized Burundi's security forces and questioned their ability to defend the country against attack. The article was in response to the July 11 bombings in Kampala, Uganda and threats from the Somali insurgent group al-Shabaab to target Burundi because of the presence of Burundian troops in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
"Kavumbagu's arrest is a big step backward for freedom of expression in Burundi," said Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "His continued detention and prosecution will have a chilling effect, sending a message that no criticism of the security forces is tolerated. The charges should be dropped immediately."
In the article, Kavumbagu wrote that, "the anxiety has been palpable in Bujumbura and all those who have heard about [the bombings] yesterday in Kampala were convinced that if the al-Shabaab militants wanted to try ‘something' in our country, they would succeed with disconcerting ease, [given that] our defense and security forces shine in their capacity to pillage and kill their compatriots rather than defend our country.
The authorities charged Kavumbagu with treason under article 570 of Burundi's criminal code, which penalizes "any Burundian who, in times of war... knowingly participates in an attempt to demoralize the Army or the Nation, with the object of weakening national defense." The penalty for treason is life in prison.
The authorities have not provided Kavumbagu's lawyer with any explanation as to how his article is aimed at weakening national security. Nor have they explicitly stated that Burundi is "at war" to justify the charge of treason as defined in the criminal code. Kavumbagu's lawyer was not present during his interrogation.
"Burundi's vibrant press is tarnished every time authorities single out journalists solely on the basis that they have expressed opinions that are provocative or unpopular among government circles," said Tom Rhodes, East Africa consultant at the Committee to Protect Journalists. "The government must reverse this trend."
At the time Kavumbagu was charged, the magistrate, without explanation, ordered his detention, pending trial. Under article 71 of the Burundian criminal procedure code, pre-trial detention of suspects is to be used only when necessary to preserve evidence; to protect public order; to protect the suspect; to prevent the crime from continuing; or to guarantee that the suspect appears before a court.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, and Human Rights Watch said that Kavumbagu's criticisms of the security forces constitute speech that is protected by international law and should not result in criminal penalties. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Burundi is a party, restrictions on free expression for reasons of national security must be provided by law and be strictly necessary and proportional to the purpose being sought.
The Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, drawn up by leading experts in freedom of expression in 1996 and endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council, provide that any law restricting free speech "must be accessible, unambiguous, drawn narrowly and with precision so as to enable individuals to foresee whether a particular action is unlawful." In addition, "[n]o one may be punished for criticizing or insulting the nation, the state or its symbols, the government, its agencies, or public officials...unless the criticism or insult was intended and likely to incite imminent violence."
"Jean Claude Kavumbagu should be freed immediately," said Hassan Shire Sheikh, executive director of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project. "The current security situation both in Burundi and East Africa in general cannot be used as an excuse to violate fundamental principles of freedom of expression or lead to a step back in efforts to decriminalize press offenses throughout the world."
Kavumbagu was arrested at approximately noon on July 17 by police Col. David Nikiza, who came to his office with a mandat d'amener (order to appear before a prosecutor) issued by the Bujumbura prosecutor's office. Kavumbagu was taken to a magistrate for questioning.
The interrogation largely centered around an article by Kavumbagu in which he claimed that Burundi was vulnerable to al-Shabaab. On the day the article was published, al-Shabaab's Sheikh Ali Mohamed Raghe told journalists that Burundi would be attacked unless it withdrew its forces from Somalia.
After two hours of interrogation, Kavumbagu was charged with treason and immediately transferred to Mpimba prison in Bujumbura.
Burundian and regional media organizations, including the Burundian Journalists' Union and the East African Journalist Association, have condemned the arrest.
Burundi is often recognized for its vibrant media, which includes over a dozen private radio stations, a private television station, and several newspapers, many of which express opinions critical of the government. However, journalists have been arbitrarily arrested, harassed, or threatened on numerous occasions.
In April 2006, 30 journalists were briefly detained by police at a news conference at the residence of a former member of parliament. In June 2006, Aloys Kabura of the Burundian Press Agency was sentenced to five months in prison for defamation after he questioned, during a private conversation in a bar, police conduct during the April events. In November 2006, three more journalists - Serge Nibizi and Domitille Kiramvu of Radio Publique Africaine and Mathias Manirakiza of Radio Isanganiro - were all detained for alleged violations to the national security of the country. They were tried and acquitted in January 2007.
Kavumbagu has been arrested on five previous occasions. On the most recent occasion in 2008, he was held in pre-trial detention for seven months on defamation charges after he published an article accusing President Pierre Nkurunziza of misuse of public funds during the 2008 Olympics in China. Kavumbagu was tried and acquitted in March 2009, although the prosecutor appealed the acquittal, and the case remains open.
In recent months, several Burundian journalists have been beaten or threatened by police or by political party activists while covering the elections currently under way. In other cases, human rights activists, including members of the Burundian organizations Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH), Forum for the Strengthening of Civil Society (FORSC), and the Anti-corruption and Economic Malpractice Observatory (OLUCOME), have been threatened or subjected to surveillance after criticizing the government.
A Human Rights Watch researcher, Neela Ghoshal, was expelled from Burundi in May, after Human Rights Watch published a report documenting pre-election violence. The government argued that the report aimed to tarnish the image of the security forces.