(Nairobi) − The Burundian Interior Minister ordered Human Rights Watch to cancel a news conference in the capital, Bujumbura, on May 2, 2012, that was planned to release a report on political violence in Burundi, Human Rights Watch said today. The police also ordered Human Rights Watch to stop distribution of the report in Burundi.
The Human Rights Watch report, “‘You Will Not Have Peace While You Are Living’: The Escalation of Political Violence in Burundi,” documents the rise of political killings in Burundi from late 2010 to late 2011. It describes killings of members and former members of opposition groups by state agents and members of the ruling party, as well as killings of members of the ruling party by armed opposition groups.
“Forcing Human Rights Watch to cancel a news conference cannot obscure the gravity of political violence in Burundi,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of trying to silence the messenger, the government should take the report’s content and recommendations to heart and take concrete steps to prevent political killings.”
In a letter dated April 30, Interior Minister Edouard Nduwimana informed Human Rights Watch, without giving a reason, that he would not allow the news conference to take place on May 2. In a letter to the mayor of Bujumbura earlier the same day − which Human Rights Watch saw − the minister instructed the mayor to stop the news conference in view of the title of the report and because Human Rights Watch had not asked for authorization.
Human Rights Watch had written to the Burundian minister of external relations and international cooperation on April 19, with a copy to the interior minister and other officials, informing him that the organization would soon publish a report on political violence in Burundi and requesting meetings to share the conclusions and recommendations in advance of publication. Human Rights Watch also had told several senior officials − including the interior minister, at a meeting with him on April 30 − that it would like a representative of the government to speak at the news conference to present the government’s point of view. The organization had been hoping to engage in a face-to-face dialogue with officials before formally announcing the news conference.
During the April 30 meeting, however, the interior minister called Human Rights Watch “subversive” and “motivated by notorious bad faith.” But several other officials who met with Human Rights Watch representatives on April 30 − including the minister of external relations, the minister of public security, and a representative of the president’s office − welcomed Human Rights Watch and raised no objections to the report or the news conference. Human Rights Watch gave all three ministers an advance copy of the report.
While the basis for the minister’s prohibition of the news conference was unclear, Human Rights Watch complied and cancelled the event. On May 2 − the publication date of the report − Human Rights Watch began distributing copies to government officials, journalists, and others. Within three hours, a police official phoned Human Rights Watch’s representatives in Bujumbura and ordered them to stop the distribution immediately. He claimed that Human Rights Watch was not allowed to distribute the report and threatened to take the “necessary measures” if the organization continued distributing it.
The minister’s actions are highly unusual in Burundi, where Burundian and international organizations frequently hold news conferences without difficulty and without seeking prior authorization. These organizations also regularly publish and broadcast reports and statements. However, in their day-to-day activities, Burundian civil society groups and journalists have encountered persistent harassment and intimidation when reporting on human rights violations, and the government has accused them of being mouthpieces for the opposition.
Human Rights Watch views the interior minister’s decision to block the news conference and his attempt to block the distribution of the report as illustrations of some government officials’ unwillingness to listen to criticism of the country’s human rights situation.
“We very much hope that these unusual events will not mar an otherwise constructive relationship with the Burundian government,” Bekele said. “Human Rights Watch will make every effort to engage the government in a positive dialogue on the contents of its report and the broader human rights situation in Burundi.”