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NGOs demand release of Burundian reporters jailed a year ago

October 22, 2020

Dozens of human rights groups called Thursday for the immediate and unconditional release of four Burundian journalists jailed a year ago on “baseless” charges while reporting in the country’s west.

The reporters were arrested along with their driver in Bubanza province where they were investigating alleged clashes between security forces and rebels from neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, and accused of threatening state security.

Agnes Ndirubusa, Christine Kamikazi, Egide Harerimana and Terence Mpozenzi from the independent Burundian media outlet Iwacu were sentenced in January to two and a half years in prison for state security offences, a verdict upheld on appeal in June. Their driver was released.

The prosecution had called for a 15-year prison sentence largely based on a WhatsApp exchange of messages between one of the reporters and a colleague based abroad in which the former wrote: “We are heading for Bubanza … to help the rebels.”

But “during the trial, the prosecution presented no evidence of the journalists having any contact with the armed group,” read a joint statement by 65 human rights organisations released Thursday, a year to the day after their arrest.

“The message sent by the courts is an attempt to intimidate and threaten other journalists from doing their work and reporting on what is happening inside the country.”

Among the signatories were Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and local activists and journalists from Burundi and the wider African continent.

Evariste Ndayishimiye was elected president in May, raising hopes for a more open political environment in Burundi after 15 years of Pierre Nkurunziza, whose rule was marked by violence and brutality against dissidents. Nkurunziza died in June.

“Their continued detention on baseless charges is a stark reminder that, despite a recent change in leadership, the Burundian government has little tolerance for independent journalism and free speech,” the organisations said.

Iwacu is Burundi’s last independent media outlet. On Reporters Without Borders’ annual press freedom index, Burundi ranks 160th out of 180 in the world.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.