Reporters Without Borders voiced concern today about the growing hostility of the ruling party’s supporters towards the privately-owned radio station Isanganiro, whose editor is the target of a campaign of threats and smears and one of whose journalists was roughed up during a ruling coalition meeting.
“Even if he ignores our calls for calm, President Pierre Nkurunziza must in the end see the harm that this absurd, aggressive campaign by his supporters is doing to his country,” the press freedom organisation said. “Verbal violence, threats and hate are very dangerous for a democracy. Radio Isanganiro and its journalists are just doing their work and there are no grounds for the accusations against them. This climate of hostility must stop.”
An unsigned, anonymous message in Kirundi sent to the station’s main e-mail address on 12 September said Isanganiro had “no other goal than to defame the new, elected government” and advised it to close down its website (www.isanganiro.org), on which its programmes are also broadcast.
“Either you close down of your own will, or we will have to force you to do it by every possible means,” the message said. “You have a month at the most, after which you should take care what happens to you.” The message also made death threats against the station’s journalists and their families, six of them by name, and advised them “to remember they are still on earth, otherwise they will be killed.”
The message’s sender, “Burundi gov,” used the address firstname.lastname@example.org. Intumwa is the name of the newspaper run by Willy Nyamitwe, the head of communication in the president’s office. Nonetheless, it is impossible to say with certainty who sent the message.
The supporters of the ruling party, whose full name is the National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Front for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), have been regularly targeting Isanganiro and two other privately-owned radio stations, Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) and Bonesha FM, ever since an alleged coup attempt last month.
But the threats against Isanganiro’s journalists have stepped up of late. On 12 September, for example, men in plain clothes accosted Isanganiro reporter Tatien Nkeshimana when he went to cover an address by President Nkurunziza at Saint-Augustin stadium in Buyenzi, a suburb of Bujumbura, although he had an official invitation from the public works ministry. They forbad him to take notes or record the president’s speech, and then seized his notebook, audio recorder and mobile phone. Everything was given back later after a public TV reporter interceded.
Isanganiro editor Gabriel Nikundana was the target of two defamatory articles on the CNDD-FDD website, Burundi Information, on 3 and 5 September, which incorrectly accused him of trying to flee to Kenya and of having to return because he did not have a visa. Accompanied by photos, the articles described him as an “extremist journalist” and referred to his “diminutive height.”
Addressing a rally in Bujumbura’s Prince Rwagasore stadium on 3 September, CNDD-FDD chairman Hussein Radjabu hinted that journalists who criticised the government might find their lives in danger. This threat came just 10 days after Isanganiro caused a stir by broadcasting an interview with Alain Mugabarabona, an opposition leader arrested in connection with the supposed coup attempt, in which he said he was tortured in prison and that the ruling coalition had fabricated the coup allegations.
Created in 2002 to reconcile Burundi’s communities through “dialogue rather than force” (its motto) and with a name that means “meeting point” in Kirundi, Isanganiro was also targeted by the previous government. The communication minister suspended its broadcasts for a week in September 2003 after it interviewed the spokesman of the National Liberation Forces (FNL), an armed opposition group.
It is not known if the ruling party is telling its supporters what to do or say, but they have been using ethnicity in their attacks on the independent press since the start of this summer. On 24 August, for example, a woman identifying herself as a “citizen of Buterere, a suburb of Bujumbura,” accused Isanganiro in a 15-point attack of having become a “hate radio station” and referred to all the privately-owned stations as “ethnic minority Tutsi radios that support the opposition parties and have no other goal than to destabilise the government.”
Journalists working for the state media have also been targeted. Aloys Kabura, the correspondent of the Agence Burundaise de Presse in the northern city of Kayanza, has been held in Ngozi prison since 31 May for comments he made in a bar criticising the government’s behaviour in an incident involving the police, a dissident ruling party legislator and several journalists. He has been awaiting the verdict of his trial since 28 July.