BUJUMBURA — As tensions mount in the central African nation of Burundi ahead of presidential elections, journalists and activists say they are paying an increasingly heavy price as standard bearers for free speech.
Civil rights in the small Great Lakes nation, they say, are on the decline
High-profile arrests have already been made: human rights defender Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa was detained last May after reporting that Nkurunziza's ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, was arming its youth wing and training them in the jungles of neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. Bob Rugurika, director of the popular independent African Public Radio (RPA), was also arrested in January after implicating intelligence officials in the recent murders of Italian nuns.
"These are the best known cases, but there are many other cases of activists who are constantly harassed, intimidated by high-ranking members of the authorities, who receive threatening phone calls or summonses," explained Carina Tersakian of the global watchdog Human Rights Watch. "There is a vibrant civil society here in Burundi that is an asset for the country, but the government is taking it very badly," she said. "The same goes for the media."
Burundi's government fiercely denies the allegations, yet at the same time makes no secret of its disdain of a section of the media and non-governmental organisations who are seen as political opponents in all but name. "Burundian civil society is made up of more than 6,000 organisations. The problem is with a few associations and a few individuals who wear the cap of civil society, but who use that to attack the government," said Willy Nyamitwe, a communications advisor to the president.
On the frontline
Radio boss Rugurika, whose release from jail in February sparked a major public outpouring of support that clearly rattled the authorities, said the government was simply trying to "silence any voice of dissent." Since his radio station started, he explained, "there have been four different regimes of three or four different presidents, and each has labelled us as being close to the opposition."
The situation today for civil society groups, however, appears to be all the more tense given that Burundi's main opposition parties boycotted the last elections in 2010 over allegations of fraud, leaving themselves excluded from the official debate.
"We practically ended up on the frontline, over-exposed in relation to the authorities, and in a permanent state of tension," explained Innocent Muhozi, president of Burundi's Press Observatory, a media rights group. Burundi's media has paid a high price for being outspoken in its denunciation of alleged extrajudicial killings, the plundering of the impoverished country's wealth by corrupt politicians or attacks on freedom of expression.
But Muhozi said the determination to speak out remained steadfast. Burundi is still recovering from a brutal 13-year-long civil war that ended in 2006, and is part of a region beset by genocide and rebellion. Activists insist they are determined to oppose the president's bid for a third term –widely seen as a move that could plunge the country back into chaos. "People have come to say that it is possible to resist," Muhozi said. On the streets of Bujumbura, the message does not appear to be falling on deaf ears: at midday, the time of RPA's main news bulletin, many listened closely to the station's broadcasts.
"It's an important radio station," said Abdul Teddy Ntunzwenimana, a 33-year-old motorcycle taxi rider. "I listen to it everyday. I like it because it tells the truth." — AFP