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Burundi29 August 2002

Press freedom worsens with jamming of radio station and Internet censorship

Reporters Without Borders expressed concern today at the sharp decline of press freedom in Burundi over the past month with the government’s censorship of a radio station and close surveillance of the Internet.

"The actions of the authorities are seriously threatening the independent media and use of the Internet," the organisation’s secretary-general Robert Ménard said.  "It is starting to look like systematic harassment.  Burundi’s radio stations are the most energetic and professional in the region and their closure or weakening would be a big step backwards for the country.  We hope the authorities realise this and do not do anything to seriously harm them," he said.

The privately-owned station Radio publique africaine (RPA) announced on 28 August the suspension of all its broadcasts in protest against the jamming of them, especially news programmes, by the telecommunications regulatory body, the ARCT, which is controlled by the defence ministry.

ARCT director Col. Nestor Misigaro said the jamming had been done as part of an attempt to get radio station owners to pay their annual licence fees, which several stations, including the government-owned one, had not paid.

But RPA chief Alexis Sinduhije said mention of the licence fee was "just an excuse" since all radio stations owed money to the ARCT but only RPA had been jammed.  The country’s media consider the $5,000 annual licence fee for a commercial station to be excessive.

Two days earlier, on 26 August, the National Communications Council (CNC) forbade the Internet websites of Burundian media to post "documents or communiqués of political organisations preaching hatred and violence."  One of the sites targeted was the website Rugamba, of the Net Press agency, which carries opposition statements .  The CNC has threatened to shut down Net Press unless Rugamba stops "all postings of documents or statements undermining peace and public security."

The CNC banned the fortnightly magazine Panafrika on 30 July for publishing what it said was a "subversive and extremist" issue.  The magazine’s issue no. 57 carried an interview with former energy and mining minister Mathias Hitimana, who was recently sacked.  In the article, headed "Buyoya wants to bury us alive," Hitimana strongly criticised President Pierre Buyoya’s "arbitrary and dictatorial methods."

The Burundian Journalists’ Association, ABJ, attacked the ban on the magazine, noting that suspension of a publication was normally the job of the communications ministry, not the CNC.

On 22 July, the government also banned publication or broadcasting of news about soldiers being killed by rebel forces.  "Such news only helps the rebels," an army spokesman said.  Interior minister Salvator Ntihabose added that journalists must "choose between the rebels on the one hand and the government and the army on the other."

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