X. Civil Society and the Media: “Mouthpieces of the Opposition”
Burundi is known for its engaged civil society and vibrant independent media. Burundian human rights organizations and journalists regularly document and publicly denounce human rights abuses. The government has tended to perceive such criticisms as hostility. For several years, it has accused civil society leaders and journalists of siding with the political opposition and serving as their mouthpiece. These accusations intensified as political tension increased.
Journalists who continued to report on the political situation and on human rights abuses in 2011 have been targeted with repeated summonses and threats of arrest. Between July and November 2011, Bob Rugurika, chief editor of Radio publique africaine (RPA), a leading independent radio station in Bujumbura, was summonsed eight times to the public prosecutor’s office and questioned about RPA’s programs. He was accused of disseminating information in his broadcasts that “incites the population to civil disobedience” and “incites ethnic hatred,” but was not formally charged.
The government is openly hostile towards the independent media. A government statement on the security situation in Burundi in October 2011 contains numerous references to the role of the media. Under a section entitled “Media at the service of politicians,” it states: “Some media have exploited information wrongly and have manipulated it either to show that a rebellion is in the making, or to call for negotiations, or to show that the government is killing members of the opposition.” The document implies that some media establishments may be deliberately exaggerating the level of insecurity or the importance of “a rebellion in the making” in order to keep attracting funds from donors.
Under Burundi’s press law, journalists have the right to “investigate and freely comment on public life.” The severe press restrictions on the coverage of the Gatumba attack, baseless and routine summonses for print and radio journalists with independent editorial lines, and the equating of the media and the opposition have all curtailed this right.
The government has also accused civil society organizations of working with the opposition. In a speech to mark the first anniversary of his re-election in late August 2011, President Nkurunziza warned that civil society organizations should be “on guard”. He called on certain civil society organizations to stop behaving in ways contrary to their own ethics and accused others of inciting civil disobedience by inviting the public to demonstrations on problems which the government was still trying to resolve. He called on the public to protest against these types of actions, quoting a Burundian proverb “bad advice is as harmful as poison.”
The government, in its November 2011 45-page document, attacked civil society organizations, specifically naming certain human rights activists. One of those named was Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, president of the human rights organization APRODH, who was accused of publicly speaking about an alleged government plan to eliminate opposition members. The government asked the international community to be vigilant in ensuring that the funding it provides to the media and civil society is destined to contribute to the consolidation of peace and democracy in Burundi.
As one of the country’s leading and most outspoken human rights activists, Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa has continued to be the target of intimidation by government authorities in more recent months. On February 8, 2012, the minister of interior sent him a strongly-worded letter, claiming that his organization had, for some time, “undertaken a quasi-campaign of disinformation, demonization and inciting the population to distrust the authorities, institutions and public services of the State by publishing statements which contain generalizations and are devoid of any evidence.” Referring to allegations by APRODH that the SNR was distributing arms to youths (Mbonimpa had spoken on the radio on this subject), the letter accused Mbonimpa of lying, “with all the consequences that such behavior can entail.” The minister gave Mbonimpa a 10-day ultimatum to provide evidence of the alleged arms distribution and threatened “severe sanctions” against his organization if he failed to do so. Mbonimpa replied to the minister on February 16, explaining that APRODH’s assertions were based on reports of its human rights observers and information provided by witnesses, rather than on his personal observations. He stated that as a human rights organization, APRODH had a duty to share information with a view to preventing further human rights abuses. The minister, in his February 24 response, described Mbonimpa’s letter as “far from satisfactory,” complaining that he had not provided evidence of the distribution of arms to youths by the SNR. The letter warned Mbonimpa that if APRODH did not submit to the control of the Ministry of Interior (which is responsible for the registration of non-governmental organizations in Burundi), its official registration could be withdrawn.
 For more information, see Human Rights Watch, Closing Doors?, November 2010, p. 42.
 See “Burundi: Stop Menacing the Media”, Human Rights Watch news release, November 21, 2011.
 Government of Burundi, “Déclaration du gouvernement sur la sécurité au Burundi au 31 octobre 2011,” p.30.
 Ibid, p.31.
Loi n˚1/025 du 27 novembre 2003 régissant la presse au Burundi, art.3.
 See section VI for more information on the media blackout after the Gatumba attack.
 Speech by President Pierre Nkurunziza on the first anniversary of his second term in office, August 26, 2011.
 Government of Burundi, “Déclaration du gouvernement sur la sécurité au Burundi au 31 octobre 2011,” p. 15. The rumored plan, called “Safisha” (“cleaning”), was allegedly aimed at wiping out opposition activists. Mbonimpa asked the prosecutor’s office to investigate the veracity of this plan. For more information see “Burundi rights body reports surge in killings”, Reuters, September 7, 2011, http://af.reuters.com/article/topNews/idAFJOE7860NK20110907.
 Government of Burundi, “Déclaration du gouvernement sur la sécurité au Burundi au 31 octobre 2011,” p. 45.
 Letter from Edouard Nduwimana, minister of interior, to Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, president of APRODH, February 8, 2012 (on file with Human Rights Watch).
 Letter from Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, president of APRODH, to Edouard Nduwimana, minister of interior, February 16, 2012 (on file with Human Rights Watch).
 Letter from Edouard Nduwimana, minister of interior, to Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, president of APRODH, February 24, 2012 (on file with Human Rights Watch).