By Millicent Zighe
Bubanza High Court sentenced four reporters from Iwacu Press limited to two and a half months prison time and fined them one million Burundi Francs (approximately US$530) in a trial marred by grave irregularities.
The journalists namely Christine Kamikazi, Agnès Ndirubusa, Egide Harerimana, and Térence Mpozenzi were arrested alongside their driver Adolphe Masabarakiza in October 2019 while investigating clashes between an armed group and security forces in Musigati commune at Bubanza Province. According to Iwacu, the team had already been granted permission by the administrative authorities to report on the matter.
They were initially charged with complicity in threatening the internal security of the state however they were later convicted of a lesser offence of attempting to commit a crime. Defence lawyers revealed that the journalists were not allowed to defend themselves in court. The media house has since promised to appeal the decision of the court.
“All that the journalists did was to ask questions, take some pictures and for that, they were detained for months, without trial. In the process of their unjustified arrests, police illegally confiscated material from the reporters and a female journalist, Christine Kamikazi was badly assaulted by the police. The African Editors Forum (TAEF) not only condemns the imprisonment of the journalists but calls for their immediate release without delay. The criminals who should be in jail are the law enforcement authorities who interfered with journalists doing their work and proceeded to assault a female member of the crew,” said TAEF chairperson Jovial Rantao.
The prosecution had sought 15 year jail terms and seizure of the journalists’ belongings including a vehicle that they were travelling in during the time of arrest. Additionally the prosecutor requested that the four be denied their right to vote for five years as well as their civic rights for 20 years.
The long sentence demand was based on a WhatsApp text exchanged between one of the reporters and a colleague based in abroad reading: We are heading for Bubanza …to help rebels.” While rendering its verdict the, the court concluded that the reporters were planning to collaborate with the rebels.
“The conviction and sentencing of Agnes Ndirubusa, Christine Kamikazi, Egide Harerimana and Terence Mpozenzi on trumped-up charges marks a sad day for the right to freedom of expression and press freedom in Burundi,” said Seif Magango, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa.
“The authorities must quash the conviction and sentences, and the four journalists must be immediately and unconditionally released,” he said.
Other human rights observers condemning the decision include Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
“The sentencing of four Iwacu journalists to two and a half years behind bars for no crime other than reporting the news is a devastating blow to the media in Burundi, where the press freedom climate is already grave,” said CPJ’s Sub-Saharan Africa representative, Muthoki Mumo. “Christine Kamikazi, Agnès Ndirubusa, Egide Harerimana, and Térence Mpozenzi have already spent months in detention. They should be freed immediately.”
This is not the first time the media house has been at loggerheads with the authorities. The Government has on numerous occasions tried to take down Iwacu online website after accusing the media house of ‘defamation and bias’. One of their journalists, Jean Bigirimana has been missing since he was abducted by the intelligence officers in 2016. His family has been forced into exile because of threats his wife received following her public statements on the enforced disappearance of her husband. To date his whereabouts remain unknown.
The crackdown on media has forced scores of journalists to flee to neighbouring countries. Almost all media houses have been shut down including British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Voice of Africa (VoA).
Burundi is currently ranked 159th out of 180 countries in the RSF press freedom index.