(Nairobi) – The decision by the National Communication Council to suspend the readers’ forum of the Burundian newspaper Iwacu infringes on the right to freedom of expression. The government should lift the suspension and allow the newspaper to resume publication of its readers’ comments page.
On May 30, 2013, Iwacu, a well-respected and widely read independent newspaper in Burundi, received a written decision from the National Communication Council (CNC) announcing a 30-day suspension of its online readers’ forum, effective May 31. The council alleged that readers’ comments on the Iwacu website in the preceding days had violated legal provisions on “endangering national unity, public order and security, incitement to ethnic hatred, justification of crimes, and insults to the head of state.” It did not indicate which specific comments triggered its decision.
“The CNC’s decision to suspend a readers’ forum is unnecessarily heavy-handed and punitive,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “While people may take issue with individual comments, it is unreasonable to hold a news forum responsible for readers’ views without saying exactly what supposedly posed a threat.”
Iwacu has announced that it is complying with the decision, but is suspending its whole website, not only its readers’ forum, on the basis that interactive dialogue with readers is an integral part of the website and of its philosophy of encouraging democratic debate. Thousands of readers visit Iwacu’s website every day and many post comments on a range of subjects.
The CNC is a national administrative authority responsible for overseeing the media and advising the government on communication. The president appoints its members. A law which came into effect on January 24 grants it decision-making powers on matters related to respect and promotion of press freedom.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern at the suspension of the Iwacu’s readers’ forum in the context of renewed attempts by the Burundian government in recent months to restrict the activities of the independent media. A new draft media law, approved by the parliament in April, contains provisions that would severely curtail media freedom and expose journalists to heavy fines for ill-defined offenses. In particular, the law would drastically limit the topics on which journalists could report.
Human Rights Watch wrote an open letter to President Pierre Nkurunziza on April 25, urging him not to sign that version of the law and to send it back to parliament for amendment. The law is still awaiting his approval.
Burundi has undertaken to protect freedom of expression through its constitution and as a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“The CNC is supposed to be protecting freedom of the media, but instead it is closing it down,” Bekele said. “The CNC should allow Burundians to enjoy the Iwacu
readers’ forum as an important source of information and a unique space for debate.”
Burundi has a vibrant independent media sector, but journalists have told Human Rights Watch that they are frequently threatened and intimidated by state agents over articles and broadcasts deemed critical of the government.
In the past few weeks alone, one journalist was shot and injured by a policeman while another was violently assaulted in his home. Both men were apparently targeted in connection with their work as journalists.
On April 27, a policeman repeatedly threatened Patrick Niyonkuru, a journalist with Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), as he attempted to investigate alleged extortion of money from bicycle-taxi drivers by the police. The policeman then shot Niyonkuru, seriously injuring him in the arm. The policeman was arrested, tried summarily, and sentenced to 15 years in prison on the day of the attack.
On April 25, men armed with guns and machetes, and wearing masks or hoods to conceal their faces, broke into the house of Willy Abagenzinikindi of Radio Télévision Renaissance. They forced him to the ground, hit him with a machete, and demanded that he hand over audio cassettes he had recorded as part of his investigations that day. They also injured one of his neighbors with a machete.
Throughout 2011 and 2012, other journalists in Burundi were frequently harassed, threatened, 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 tear gas to disperse journalists marching to support Ruvakuki.
Correction: The first quote in this announcement has been corrected to delete a word that had been inserted.