The UN Security Council’s efforts to put an end to the fighting between the army and the various rebel groups operating in the country did not bear fruit in 2002. Violence continued and journalists again paid the price. The death of a radio producer during a rebel incursion into the north of the capital in August showed that journalists, like many other Burundians, run enormous risks in the practice of their profession.
Communications minister Albert Mbonerane announced on 3 May, World Press Freedom Day, that the government would revise the press law in such a way as to eliminate "unnecessary or harmful institutional restrictions." On 29 September, his ministry presented a draft law that would set up a fund for promoting local news media and would set aside 50 million Burundi francs (about 49,000 euros) for its financing. The law has still to be approved by the council of minister and parliament.
The National Council of Communication (CNC), which regulates the press, continued to play an ambiguous role. It regularly imposed harsh sanctions on news media, but at the same time it criticised governmental pressure on journalists
Privately-owned radio stations continued to be the main source of news and a new radio station, Radio Isanganiro, was launched in 2002. The print media, on the other hand, continued to lack readers outside of the capital because of the low literacy rate in the provinces and a distribution network that was often disrupted by clashes between the army and the rebels, whose presence was still very much felt.
A journalist killed
Ali Hamisi Bizimana, 32, the programme director of Bonesha FM, was killed in a rebel ambush on 5 August 2002 in the Mutanga district on the northern side of the capital, Bujumbura. He was driving some friends back to their home when shots were fired at his and several other vehicles. Both he and his 4-year-old son sustained fatal bullet injuries. There was no reason to think that his death was linked to his work as a journalist.
Two journalists physically attacked
Aloys Niyoyita, a journalist with the radio news agency Studio Ijambo who sometimes works for the Associated Press, was stopped by gendarmes in Bujumbura on 6 March 2002 while covering a protest by opponents of the Arusha peace accords. When he refused to surrender his equipment, the gendarmes hit him and detained him. He was held for four hours at a barracks along with eight protesters. Corneille Nibaruta, a journalist with Bonesha FM, was harassed and treated in a humiliating manner by a gendarme while covering the same protest, but was not detained.
Several journalists with the online news agency In-Burundi.net were roughed up by gendarmes in Bujumbura in early January 2002 when investigating the torture of a security guard by agents of the national documentation service (an intelligence agency). The guard had been detained in connection with the murder of World Health Organisation (WHO) representative Kassi Malan in Burundi in December 2001. The gendarmes threatened the journalists with "the same fate."
Bonesha FM editor-in-chief Abbas Mbazumutima and a journalist with the same radio station, Gabriel Ninkundana, were also repeatedly threatened at this time for having broadcast a report based on an interview with the same guard. In early April, after broadcasting a telephone interview with the head of the National Liberation Forces (FNL), Mbazumutima received an anonymous call in which he was accused of colluding with the rebels and was threatened with death.
Pressure and obstruction
The communications minister ordered the indefinite closure of the news agency Net Press on 14 January 2002 on the grounds that it was "subversive, libellous, insulting and mendacious" and threatened "national unity" as well as " public order, security and morality." A week later, the minister rejected the director of Net Press, Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, as a candidate to join the CNC press regulatory body, arguing that no one, including journalists, could be allowed to jeopardise the government’s actions at a time of civil war. He finally lifted the ban on Net Press on 21 February claiming that Kavumbagu had "promised to mend his ways." Kavumbagu denied this.
The defence minister, Col. Cyrille Ndayirukiye, banned the news media from broadcasting or publishing interviews with the rebels on 16 May on the grounds that this "helps their war effort." He did not say how violations of the ban would be punished, but a radio journalist told Reporters Without Borders that, "we know very well we have no choice." The ban came several days after a privately-owned radio station broadcast an interview with a rebel chief thought to have been dead. The Government Action Watch, a local NGO, said the ban violated the freedom of information, "especially as the government has already decided to negotiate with the armed groups."
Alexis Sinduhije, the director of the privately-owned Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), and three of the radio station’s journalists including André Palice Ndimurukundo and Domithille Kiramvu were summoned to the prosecutor’s office in Bujumbura on 29 May for questioning as "witnesses" in the murder of WHO representative Kassi Malan. The radio station had been broadcasting a series of investigative reports on the case until it was banned from continuing by the public prosecutor on 16 May. Sinduhije said he was ready to cooperate with the judicial authorities as long as they respected the law.
On 22 July, the government banned the news media from broadcasting or publishing any information about army losses in clashes with the rebels. Again, it was not specified how violations of the ban would be punished. The interior minister told journalist they must chose between the rebels or the government and army.
The CNC imposed a temporary ban on the bi-monthly publication Panafrika for "serious breaches of ethics" on 30 July after it ran an interview with the newly dismissed minister of energy and mines Mathias Hitimana in which he criticised President Pierre Buyoya’s "arbitrariness and dictatorial methods." The Burundi journalists’ association (ABJ) complained that only the communications ministry, and not the CNC, had the power to ban a publication. On 26 August, the CNC banned Burundi news media websites from posting "documents or communiques of political organisations preaching hatred and violence." The ban was aimed above all at the news agency Net Press and its website Rugamba, which carries opposition communiques. The CNC threatened to close Net Press if its site did not stop carrying documents "threatening peace and public security."
Radio Publique Africaine announced on 28 August that it was suspending all broadcasting in protest at the jamming of its signal, especially its news programmes, by a telecommunications regulatory agency that is attached to the defence ministry. The agency acknowledged the jamming but said it was being done to make radio stations pay their annual license fees. The RPA said this was just a pretext, as all the radio stations owed money but only its signal was being jammed.