Burundian appeal court upholds prison sentences for four journalists
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns yesterday’s shocking decision by an appeal court to confirm the 30-month jail terms that four journalists with Iwacu, one of Burundi’s few remaining independent media outlets, received in January. The new president must free these journalists at once as a first step in ending the systematic persecution of the media, RSF said.
When reached by RSF, an Iwacu representative said he and his colleagues were “shattered” to learn that the four reporters – Christine Kamikazi, Agnès Ndirubusa, Térence Mpozenzi and Egide Harerimana – would have to remain in prison. In a decision issued in the absence of lawyers, the court in the northwestern city of Bubanza upheld the sentence of 30 months in prison and a fine of 1 million Burundian francs (482 euros) that was passed on the four journalists on 30 January on a charge of “attempted complicity in a violation of state security.” They were arrested on 22 October after trying to cover a surprise incursion into northwestern Burundi by a group of Burundian rebels based in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo who were opposed to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government.
It was nonetheless made clear during the original trial and the appeal hearing that the four reporters had absolutely no link with the rebel group. The charges were changed from “complicity” to “attempted complicity” during the original trial. Iwacu’s director announced today on Twitter that they would appeal to Burundi’s supreme court.
“This decision is both distressing and alarming, because it’s not based on any serious evidence and leaves journalists who want to cover major news stories under the threat of a long prison sentence,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “This is another dark day for Burundi’s press, which has already been undermined by years of persecution leading to the closure of many media and the flight into exile of around 100 journalists. We call on the president-elect to end this policy, and to begin by releasing these four journalists, who should not be in prison.”
Burundi’s constitutional court yesterday declared the government-backed candidate, Évariste Ndayishimiye – a former interior minister and President Nkurunziza former chief of state – to be the winner of the 20 May presidential election.
The leading challenge facing the president-elect will be to end the crisis caused by Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term in 2015, a crisis that triggered major unrest and a brutal crackdown that took a heavy toll on Burundi’s media and journalists.
Iwacu’s journalists continue to be the frequent targets of threats and intimidation. During the presidential election campaign, a ruling party parliamentarian reacted to an article he did not like by threatening to “crush the heads” of Iwacu’s journalists. The president’s spokesman called them a “virus”. In addition to seeing four of its journalists arbitrarily jailed, Iwacu lost one of its most experienced reporters when Jean Bigirimana disappeared on 22 July 2016. According to several witnesses, he was last seen in the custody of intelligence officers.
Burundi is ranked 160th out of 180 countries and territories in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.