Several popular privately-owned radio stations were briefly shut down after broadcasting the statements of rebels fighting the government. But the national assembly passed a new press law that was less harsh than the previous one.
The transfer of power in spring 2003 from President Pierre Buyoya to his successor Domitien Ndayizeye, the appointed head of the transitional government for the second half of its three-year period, had no direct effect on the work environment for Burundi’s journalists.
Nonetheless, respect for press freedom in Burundi varied according to developments in the peace talks between the government and rebels. When the climate was especially tense, especially after violent clashes, the media were closely monitored by the authorities, who were infuriated to hear rebels express their views on local radio stations. After a breakdown in the peace talks in March, for example, the president banned radio stations from interviewing the rebels.
Journalists were able to work more freely after an accord was signed in October between the government and one of the main rebel movements, the Forces for the Defence of Democracy (FDD). Burundian reporters were thereafter able to interview FDD leaders without any problem. This was not the case with the National Liberation Forces (FNL), an armed group that continued to fight. The government reminded the press that its role was to encourage peace and not serve as a mouthpiece for those who wanted to "destabilise the country."
The transitional national assembly passed a new press law in August that was more liberal that the previous, 1997 law. It abolished the requirement to reveal sources at a judge’s behest and it included a "conscience clause" allowing journalists to resign in cases of conflict with their employers. It also provided for the creation of a public assistance fund for news media. However, prison terms were kept as penalties for endangering state security and publishing defence secrets.
A journalist imprisoned
Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, the director of the news agency Net Press, was arrested by the secret police in Bujumbura on 5 July 2003 and accused of insulting the authorities on his news agency’s website. The day before his arrest, he had been summoned by the communication minister and ordered to remove a link to the website of Agora, a Burundian group based in northern Europe, on which President Ndayizeye and other officials were described as "genocidal" coup supporters with the "blood of innocents" on their hands. Kavumbagu was freed on the evening of 10 July.
Harassment and obstruction
President Buyoya summoned the editors of state and privately-owned radio stations on 4 March 2003 and told them they must no longer refer to or broadcast the statements of the two rebels groups which had not signed or implemented the cease-fire accords, the Forces for the Defence of Democracy (FDD) and the National Liberation Forces (FNL). This ban came a few days after a breakdown in talks between the government and FDD. Buyoya did not specify what sanctions would be applied to news media that did not respect the ban.
Privately-owned radio Isanganiro was shut down for a week on the orders of communication minister Albert Mbonerane on 13 September for interviewing FNL spokesman Pasteur Habimana. The other privately-owned radio stations announced the next day that, in protest against the closure, they would refuse to cover all government activities until Isanganiro was allowed to resume broadcasting.
The communication minister ordered the closure of another privately-owned radio station, Radio Publique africaine (RPA), for an indefinite period three days later for relaying the "propaganda of the country’s enemy" after it also interviewed Habimana. Radio Isanganiro appealed to the National Communication Council (CNC), which decided on 18 September to reduce the length of the closure from seven to five days. Isanganiro resumed broadcasting the next day. RPA went back on the air on 20 September after the communication minister rescinded his closure order.