By Millicent Zighe
The Coalition for Women in Journalism (CFWIJ) has condemned the Government over charges levelled against two female journalists from Iwacu Press Limited detained while covering clashes at Bubanza, North Western Burundi on October 22, 2019.
“We are extremely disappointed in the justice system of Burundi and demand their release on an immediate basis. It is also appalling for the state of Burundi to deny their citizens the basic right to vote. We have also received reports about the government using power and law to suppress press freedom in the country and urge local authorities to do better,” reads the statement released on January 9, 2020.
This came days after Burundi prosecutor requested 15 year jail terms for the four journalist accused of undermining state security. Additionally, he sought to have the five denied the right to vote for five years prior to imprisonment and confiscation of their property including phones, cameras and the car they were using during the time of arrest. A witness reported to AFP that the heavy sentence was based on WhatsApp text messages exchanged between one of the incarcerated journalist and a colleague based abroad which read: “We are heading for Bubanza to help the rebels.”
Despite the outcome, Clement Retirakiza, one of the defense lawyers, expressed satisfaction with the way the hearing was conducted. “The court allowed all parties to express themselves and gave us enough time to defend,” he told the journalists at Bubanza Court. He further said the defense has enough time to refute the accusations. The ruling will be announced within 30 days.
Sub Saharan representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists Muthoni Mumo expressed disappointment terming Burundi justice system unfriendly towards journalism fraternity.
“The Iwacu staff should have never been arrested, and the prosecutor’s request for a 15-year prison term reveals just how hostile Burundi has become toward the independent press. We call on the Burundian authorities to unconditionally release Christine Kamikazi, Agnès Ndirubusa, Egide Harerimana, and Térence Mpozenzi and to drop all charges against Adolphe Masabarikiza” she said
However, Burundi State Prosecutor refuted claims that the arrest was an attempt to muzzle the press. “These people were not arrested because they are journalists but for the things they are accused of,” he said in a statement.
He added that the journalists were “apprehended on a hill where clashes were taking place and facts at the disposition of the prosecutors indicate that they could have had this information beforehand,”
At least 450 people have signed the petition launched by the international organization Reporters Without Borders seeking release of the of the journalists and their driver. Other organizations voicing their support include Reporters without Boarders, which places Burundi a lowly 159th on its global list of press freedom.
During a press conference President Pierre Nkurunzinza made it clear that he will not interfere with the case. “I will only suggest that they should find lawyers who can help them. If I interfere with the justice’s decisions, it would be undermining the independence of the justice system,” said Nkurunziza. “We only intervene as a supreme judge after finishing all the kinds of appeal.”
On January 8th, the coalition of major international media ranked the case involving Iwacu journalists as the 4th most urgent case in the world.