Burundi media: in the cross-hairs of government

Burundi's journalists are bracing for tough times after parliament passed a restrictive draft media law that rights groups fear is designed to silence critical voices ahead of a general election in two years.

The law, prepared amid great secrecy last year, was adopted by parliament last Monday.

Giving the government extra powers, it strips from journalists the ability to protect their sources, restricts reporting on topics deemed sensitive and sharply raises the fines courts can impose.

While the legislation must still be passed by the president, journalists are worried.

"We are fighting against this bill since we learned about it several months ago," said Alexander Niyungeko, president of the Burundian Journalists Union.

"We sensed from the beginning a desire to rein in the independent press of the country... We now know that this bill was prepared by the ruling party to take revenge on the journalists who are accused of having given their microphone to be the voice of the opposition."

The former secretary general of the ruling party (CNDD-FDD), Gelase Ndabirabe, now a senator, recently said the motivation for the law was to curb the enthusiasm of journalists, who, since the opposition boycotted politics three years ago, have taken on the role of "politicians".

Many opposition leaders have fled the country since their boycott of the 2010 presidential and parliamentary elections. The resulting absence of a vocal opposition in Burundi has seen the media become a lone voice in trying to hold the government to account, according to observers.

"Our only crime is to have denounced the widespread corruption... extrajudicial executions, cases of torture, and political restrictions imposed by the government," said Eric Manirakiza, director of the private station Radio Public Africa (RPA).

"The political opposition has been virtually wiped out, we must find a solution to the question posed by the media and civil society," said a member of the ruling CNDD-FDD party, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Civil society is no longer a threat if it does not have a radio through which to express themselves."

In a last-ditch attempt to halt the controversial legislation, reporters in the country have launched a petition urging the president not to sign the bill into law. The campaign has already collected more than 10,000 signatures, according the journalists' union.

Media outlets have long been used to operating with limited press freedom in the country but since Pierre Nkurunziza came to power in 2005, a dozen journalists have been imprisoned, while others have suffered death threats and have been forced into exile.

Government spokesman Philippe Nzobonariba has repeatedly accused independent radio stations of having made a pact "with the enemy" in Burundi.

Civil society groups fear further crackdowns are looming.

"The government is preparing to revise the law governing non-governmental organisations, and about public demonstrations, with two years until new elections in Burundi," said Vital Nshimirimana, who heads a coalition of almost 200 associations, the Forum for the Strengthening of Civil Society (FORSC).

The next polls are due in 2015, but the political opposition has been silent for almost three years and analysts fear the small landlocked African nation, which has a history of violent conflict, is sliding into authoritarianism.

Except for the main ruling party, all of Burundi's political parties have criticised the proposed media law. It has also come under fire from the United Nations, many Western countries and from global rights groups including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders.

"The international community is concerned and is closely following developments," one diplomat told AFP in Burundi on condition of anonymity, adding that "some might reconsider their cooperation with Burundi, if such a law was enacted."

The draft law comes just weeks after the release of Radio France Internationale (RFI) reporter Hassan Ruvakuki, whose three-year prison sentence for aiding and abetting a rebel movement had already triggered an outcry from donors.

Burundi, one of the poorest countries in the world, still depends heavily on foreign aid, which makes up about half of its national budget.