Reporters Without Borders wrote to Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza today voicing concern about the pernicious state of relations between his government and the media, and the alarming number of press freedom violations during his first year in office.
“The press plays a stabilising role in democracies by channelling and giving structure to the debates taking place within society,” the letter said. “The independent media’s work of investigating and reporting may annoy a government but that does not mean that it destabilises or disturbs the peace. But attacks on the press can undermine a government’s credibility and destabilise it, inasmuch as they give the impression that it is trying to take revenge on its detractors or to hide the facts from the public.”
The letter continued: “We believe your government is just casting oil on the fire of a complex and unstable situation by attacking the press with the means of repression at its disposal. For this reason, we call on you to defuse the situation by putting an end to the threats and harassment of the independent press and by trying to build a new relationship with Burundi’s journalists.”
Noting the climate of fear among journalists in recent weeks, the letter cited reports from Bujumbura that the authorities have drawn up a list of names of people supposedly involved in two alleged plots against the government. The list includes five journalists working for three independent radio stations, who are identified by their first names: Alexis, Serge, Bob, Gabriel and Etienne.
In its letter, Reporters Without Borders also condemned the verbal intimidation by both officials and anonymous sources that has been reported by journalists investigating about alleged coup attempts. Just yesterday, the prosecutor general accused journalists of “disturbing order and security in this matter.” If they continued to investigate, “it could prove fatal for them,” he said.
Information minister Karenga Ramadhani said on Public African Radio (RPA) in late June that he was “determined” to rein in journalists who behaved irresponsibly. “We will be obliged to use force within the limits of the law,” he warned.
Reporters Without Borders mentioned another episode that has helped to poison relations between the press and the authorities. Some 20 journalists were held hostage by the police for more than seven hours on 17 April when they went to a news conference at the home of Mathias Basabose, a politician who had just been ousted from the ruling party.
The organisation also referred to the plight of Aloys Kabura, the Kayanza correspondent of the Burundian Press Agency (ABP), who has been held in Ngozi prison since 31 May for comments he made in a bar that were critical of the government’s behaviour towards the press. A judicial decision on his case has been pending since 28 July.