(New York) – The adoption of a new media law by Burundi’s National Assembly on April 3, 2013, is an attempt to curtail free speech and independent journalism. The Senate and president should reject this version of the draft law, which would undermine Burundians’ hard-won struggle for fundamental freedoms.
Provisions of the version adopted by the National Assembly would severely restrict the ability of journalists to cover events in Burundi, Human Rights Watch said. Among other things, it would undermine the protection of sources, limit subjects on which journalists may report, impose new fines for media found in violation of the law, and require journalists to have a minimum level of education and professional experience.
“This draft law is an attempt to clamp down on journalists after persistent harassment and intimidation has failed to silence them,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Senate should insist that these harsh restrictions are removed from the law.”
The draft legislation is particularly worrisome with elections planned for 2015, Human Rights Watch said. Journalists and other perceived critics of the government were repeatedly harassed and threatened during the 2010 election period.
The right to freedom of expression is guaranteed in the Burundian Constitution, and in regional and international conventions, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Burundi has ratified.
In 2012 the government initially submitted a draft bill similar to the one passed on April 3 to the National Assembly. The parliamentary commission for political affairs made several positive amendments to that draft, removing many of the restrictions. However, when the draft was sent on to the full National Assembly, many of the original restrictions were reintroduced. Eventually the draft law was adopted by a vote of 82 to 15, with two abstentions.
The law has been sent to the Senate for approval. Once approved by the Senate, it will require the signature of President Pierre Nkurunziza before becoming law.
The draft law contains several articles that would interfere with Burundian journalists’ ability to operate independently and could expose them to a range of sanctions for ill-defined offenses, Human Rights Watch said.
For example, it requires journalists to refrain from reporting information that could affect “national unity; public order and security; morality and good conduct; honor and human dignity; national sovereignty; the privacy of individuals; the presumption of innocence.” Reporting is further restricted on issues that involve “propaganda of the enemy of the Burundian nation in times of peace as of war” and “information that could affect the credit of the state and the national economy.”
“This sweeping language means that topics journalists could legally cover would be severely restricted,” Bekele said. “They might not even be allowed to write about inflation, much less security issues or political killings.”
The draft law states that journalists should only broadcast “balanced information” and that sources “must be rigorously checked,” without further explanation.
The law would eliminate the prison terms for offenses that are included in the 2003 law the new media law would replace. But it would impose extortionate fines – some as high as 8 million Burundian francs (roughly US$5,000) – that most radio stations and newspapers would be unable to afford, Human Rights Watch said. The law would also require journalists to have a university degree in journalism or its equivalent or at least two years of professional experience.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which provides the definitive interpretation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Burundi is a state party, states, in General Comment no. 34 on Freedom of Expression, that general state systems of registration or licensing of journalists are incompatible with freedom of expression.
“This law takes us backward,” Alexandre Niyungeko, president at the Burundian Union of Journalists, told Human Rights Watch. “It is an attack on democracy, because we cannot have even a basic level of democracy in a country where there is no freedom of expression.”
While Burundi has made important strides in recovering from a prolonged civil war, the country has had spikes in violence in recent years, with a sharp increase in political killings following the 2010 elections. Human Rights Watch has documented the implication of state agents in many of these cases. Burundian journalists have played a critical role in reporting on these killings and giving a voice to the victims’ families.
Under the law passed by the National Assembly, reporting on these cases and on the impunity of state agents could be considered illegal if it were interpreted as affecting national unity or order.
Burundi has a paradoxical media environment. It has a vibrant independent media sector, yet journalists have reported to Human Rights Watch that they are frequently threatened and intimidated by state agents over articles and broadcasts deemed critical of the government.
In 2010 most opposition parties boycotted the elections and several of their leaders fled the country. The ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), then appeared to treat journalists, civil society organizations, and lawyers as the new opposition. Government statements have often described journalists as mouthpieces of the political opposition.
One journalist, Jean Claude Kavumbagu, was imprisoned for 10 months for writing an article in which he questioned the country’s ability to respond to potential terrorist attacks. He was acquitted of the initial charge of treason but found guilty of “threatening the national economy.” He was released in May 2011.
Throughout 2011and 2012 radio journalists in Burundi were frequently harassed and summoned to the public prosecutor’s office to account for their broadcasts.
In 2012, Hassan Ruvakuki, of Radio France Internationale and Radio Bonesha FM, was sentenced to life in prison for alleged terrorist acts after interviewing a new rebel group in late 2011. His sentence was reduced to three years on appeal, and he was released on March 6, after spending 15 months in prison.
On February 19, police in Bujumbura, the capital, fired teargas to disperse journalists marching in support of Ruvakuki.
“A cornerstone to Burundi’s democratic future is the ability of journalists to work without hindrance and to report on sensitive issues,” Bekele said. “The government should value and preserve the country’s dynamic media sector instead of trying to undermine it through repressive legislation.”