Bob Rugurika arriving at the prosecutor’s office in the Burundian capital Bujumbura, January 20, 2015.

(Nairobi) – Burundian authorities arrested a prominent journalist on January 20, 2015, days after his radio station broadcast a series of investigative reports into the September 2014 murder of three elderly Italian nuns in the country. The broadcasts included allegations about the involvement of senior intelligence officials in the attack on the convent.

Burundian authorities have produced no evidence to justify the detention of the journalist, Bob Rugurika, director of Radio publique africaine (RPA), and should immediately release him.

On January 22, 2015, Rugurika was detained in an isolation cell and denied visits.

“Rugurika’s arrest and prosecution appear to be an attempt to silence him and prevent his radio station from investigating and reporting on sensitive issues,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director. “Burundi’s justice system shouldn’t be used to stifle media freedom.”

Rugurika’s arrest forms part of a pattern of government attacks on freedom of expression, particularly targeting journalists, activists, and members of political parties. These attacks have escalated in the run-up to elections in Burundi in May.

In one of the programs about the murder of the nuns, RPA interviewed a man who claimed to have participated in the attack. He alleged that senior officials in the intelligence services and security forces were involved in planning it.

RPA journalists told Human Rights Watch that the station had contacted these officials before the broadcasts, and that these officials said they knew nothing about the allegations and did not wish to comment.

Rugurika’s lawyers and prosecuting officials told Human Rights Watch that he is likely to be charged with conspiracy to murder, obstructing the course of justice through violating confidentiality in criminal investigations, harboring a criminal, and failing to uphold “public solidarity.”

The prosecutor of Bujumbura town told Human Rights Watch on January 21 that Rugurika could be considered an accomplice to the nuns’ murder because he met an alleged perpetrator but did not inform the authorities or hand him over for arrest. The prosecutor also said that although a man arrested soon after the murders allegedly confessed to the crimes, pre-judicial investigations were still ongoing and that RPA’s interview with someone else who was allegedly involved could hamper these investigations.

On January 19, Rugurika received a summons from the prosecutor’s office directing him to provide clarification about the murder case and to “produce before the state prosecutor one of the criminals at [his] disposal.”

On the morning of January 20, officials at the prosecutor’s office questioned Rugurika on his methods of investigation, among other things. He was arrested in the afternoon, on the basis of a warrant issued by the prosecutor, and taken to Mpimba prison in Bujumbura, the capital. The prosecutor told Human Rights Watch that Rugurika would face further questioning in the coming days.

On the morning of January 22, Rugurika was transferred to Muramvya prison, around 30 kilometers away from Bujumbura. He was moved to an isolation cell and visitors were prevented from seeing him. The governor of Muramvya prison declined to tell colleagues who tried to visit him why Rugurika had been transferred and why he was being denied visits. Nor did the governor of Mpimba prison explain to Human Rights Watch why Rugurika had been transferred.

“We are very concerned about Rugurika’s detention in isolation,” Bekele said. “The authorities should immediately grant him access to visits and ensure his well-being in prison.”

International human rights law, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both ratified by Burundi, make clear that pretrial detention should be the exception rather than the rule. The Burundian authorities have not produced any evidence of the need to detain Rugurika.

Burundi has lively independent media with a strong tradition of investigative reporting. RPA is one of the most popular radio stations, with correspondents across the country. It frequently broadcasts information viewed as critical of the government, including detailed accounts of alleged human rights abuses and interviews with victims and their families, as well as the alleged abusers. The government accuses RPA of being a tool of the political opposition. 

Rugurika, who was RPA’s editor-in-chief before becoming its director in 2014, has been threatened many times in relation to RPA broadcasts on other sensitive issues. Senior government officials have threatened him personally, and the National Communication Council, the state body which regulates the media, has issued warnings to the radio station. Officials have also threatened several RPA senior staff and journalists. 

Journalists working for other radio stations and newspapers have also been intimidated, and some arrested, for reporting on alleged government abuses. Many, including Rugurika, have been summoned for questioning repeatedly by the authorities. Despite this persistent harassment, journalists have not shied away from documenting and reporting on controversial subjects.

“In a desperate bid to secure an election victory, the ruling party in Burundi is lashing out at its most prominent critics, picking them off one by one,” Bekele said. “By trying to muzzle RPA, it may be hoping to get rid of one of the biggest thorns in its side.”

In May 2014, a leading human rights activist, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, was arrested in connection with an interview he gave to RPA alleging that young Burundians were being armed and sent for military training in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. He was charged with endangering internal and external state security and detained for four months. He was released in September on grounds of ill-health but is still awaiting trial.

In August, the National Communication Council warned RPA to stop broadcasting interviews with people who claimed to have information backing up Mbonimpa’s allegations. Mbonimpa is president of the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH), one of the most vocal and respected critics of the government’s human rights record. 

In June 2013, Burundi adopted a new press law that restricts media freedoms. Among other things, it limits the subjects on which journalists are allowed to report, potentially criminalizing reporting on subjects such as public order and security.

The Burundi authorities should ensure an appropriate and fair balance between the freedom of the media, including the freedom of journalists to investigate and report on crimes, and ensuring the integrity of criminal investigations.  

In its Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights stated in October 2002: “Any restrictions on freedom of expression shall be provided by law, serve a legitimate interest and be necessary in a democratic society.” 

The Burundi authorities have shown no reason why Rugurika’s imprisonment is either proportionate or necessary. His detention therefore amounts to a violation of the right to freedom of expression and the right to public information, enshrined in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Rugurika should be released while authorities continue their investigations into the killing of the nuns. If he is to be charged, he should be brought promptly before a judge.

“Burundian authorities should be pursuing those responsible for the nuns’ murder, not targeting journalists who are reporting on the incident,” Bekele said.