Published in French in Le Monde on January 28, 2015.
Bob Rugurika has been in prison since January 20. His name may not mean much to readers outside Burundi. Yet he is an excellent journalist who has honored his profession as director of the most popular independent radio station in his country, Radio Publique Africaine (RPA).
Bob, well known in his country by his first name alone, directs a radio station that is one of the pillars of freedom of expression in Burundi − a freedom that has been hard won by courageous and vibrant civil society groups. A warm and intelligent man, Bob is also a friend to many journalists, lawyers, and leaders of Burundian and international nongovernmental organizations. Instead of in prison, Bob should be in his radio studio, providing information to his listeners in an independent and professional manner.
Bob is accused of complicity in the brutal murder of three Italian nuns in September 2014 in their convent near the capital, Bujumbura. Judicial authorities provided no evidence of Bob’s complicity before detaining him, and did not produce any information to show that his detention was necessary and proportionate in relation to the investigation into the killings. His arrest was based on an interview on his station with someone who claimed to have participated in the nuns’ murder and alleged that senior Burundian officials were involved.
A few months ago, the well-known Burundian human rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa was also arrested and imprisoned for publicly airing information that displeased the government. The remarkable mobilization of Burundian society in his support, belatedly backed by donor governments and Burundi’s partners, enabled him to regain his freedom and resume his activities − activities essential for human rights protection in a country with a sad history of violent conflict. But he was only released on medical grounds, after falling seriously ill in prison. He is still awaiting trial and is not allowed to travel outside the capital.
First it was a human rights defender who was under attack, and now it is the turn of a well-known journalist, all in the context of an increasingly tense political climate before elections in mid-2015. There are fears that there could be a long list of other potential "targets" among independent activists.
The authorities’ nervousness is palpable, but only the acceptance, by everyone involved, of an open, democratic, and peaceful debate will enable Burundi to see through the elections without an outbreak of violence. To keep this debate alive, Bob Rugurika’s presence in his studio at RPA is critical.
Freedom for Bob Rugurika!