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Burundi18 March 2009

News website editor acquitted of defamation after six months in pre-trial detention

A Bujumbura court today acquitted Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, the editor of the Net Press news website, of defaming President Pierre Nkurunziza. He had been held since 11 September in pre-trial detention in Mpimba central prison as a result of a complaint brought by the government secretary-general.

The complaint was prompted by a report claiming that the president spent 100 million Burundian francs (71,000 euros) during his visit to Beijing for the Olympic Games opening ceremony whereas the office of the government secretary-general insisted he was given only 50 million for the trip.

11.09.08 - Website editor jailed for report about how much president spent on trip to Beijing

Reporters Without Borders calls for the release of Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, the editor of the Net Press news website, who was arrested and jailed today for allegedly defaming the government in a report about how much the president spent on his visit to the Beijing Olympic Games.

“Aside from the fact that Kavumbagu’s imprisonment provides the president with no redress if he was indeed defamed, it alarms us because it comes amid a marked deterioration in relations between the government and civil society,” Reporters Without Borders said.

“We fear that it could be the prelude to other repressive measures against the privately-owned media, in a recurrence of the crisis prompted by the jailing of four journalists at the end of 2006,” the press freedom organisation added.

Kavumbagu was arrested and transferred to Mpimba prison after responding to a second summons from the prosecutor’s office in the capital. When he was first summoned last month, he was notified that the secretary-general of the government had brought a complaint accusing him of libel and “insulting comments.”

The complaint was prompted by an article accusing President Pierre Nkurunziza of spending 100 million Burundian francs (71,000 euros) during his visit to Beijing for the Olympic Games opening ceremony whereas the government had given him only 50 million for the trip. The article claimed that this had delayed the payment of salaries to civil servants.

Net Press is often critical of the ruling CNDD-FDD alliance, which won the August 2005 presidential election. Kavumbagu was arrested several times under the previous government, in 2001 and 2003, and his website was suspended by the media regulatory body in 2005.

His latest arrest comes at a time of growing hostility among the president’s supporters towards human rights organisations and certain local journalists and privately-owned media, which a pro-government website recently accused of being “children of the dictatorship” concerned solely with “defending what they have gained.”

Four leading Bujumbura journalists were arrested in November 2006 for reporting that an attack on the presidential palace and the home of the head of the ruling party had in fact been prepared by the army with the aim of proving there had been a coup attempt, the reality of which had been questioned by many privately-owned media. The four journalists were held for more than two months.

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