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Burundian journalists under threats as elections nears

Burundian authorities arrested Bob Rugurika, director of Radio publique africaine (RPA), 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.

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.

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Bob Rugurika arrested over invastigative reports (Photo/HRW)

“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, Executive Director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. “Burundi’s justice system shouldn’t be used to stifle media freedom.”

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.

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 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.

Human rights watch officials noted that 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.

Emile Ndayambaje - Imirasire.com

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