The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press; the government usually respected these rights.
Freedom of Speech: The government mostly respected freedom of speech. Throughout the year political party leaders, including those representing the nonparliamentary opposition coalition that boycotted the 2010 elections, convened press conferences, were interviewed by the media, and issued/circulated written statements (including on the Internet) in which they criticized the government and the ruling party. In August prosecutors called in for questioning the president of one of these opposition parties, the Front for Democracy in Burundi (FRODEBU), after he expressed support for violence against the government in a press conference. He was released after questioning during which he retracted his statement by explaining that he had been “provoked” by one of the journalists into saying what he had said.
On July 27, the president of the Burundian Bar Association, Isidore Rufikiri, was detained by the public prosecutor of Bujumbura Mairie for having repeatedly and publicly insulted government magistrates. After “apologizing” for his statements, he was released on August 4.
Freedom of Press: The law prohibits political parties, labor unions, and foreign nongovernmental organizations from owning media outlets. The law also prohibits the media from spreading “hate” messages or from using abusive or defamatory language against public servants acting in their official role that could damage the dignity of or respect for the public office.
The National Communications Council (CNC), an independent state agency, oversaw enforcement of these laws and was charged with promoting freedom of the press and expression, guaranteeing access to information by all political parties, labor groups and media, as well as accreditation of journalists. It reviewed all projects or legislative proposals relating to the press and imposed sanctions against media organizations that it deemed violated the law. The CNC used counseling sessions with and reprimands of the heads of media organizations or journalists who it thought violated the law. It did not file lawsuits and lacked the resources to investigate cases; instead, it referred cases to the prosecutor general of the appropriate province. During the year the CNC issued eight reprimands in total to four private, independent FM radio stations and one television station: Rema FM, which tended to reflect the views of the ruling CNDD-FDD, and African Public Radio, which was viewed as favorable to the opposition, each received two reprimands; Radio Isanganiro, Renaissance TV, and CCIB FM+, which were viewed as more politically neutral, each received one. Following the reprimands, journalists from two radio stations, African Public Radio and Bonesha, were summoned by public prosecutors to respond to “judicial investigations,” but no criminal charges were filed.
Violence and Harassment: Some journalists investigating controversial subjects such as corruption and human rights violations reported threats from certain members of the police, the SNR, and the ruling CNDD-FDD party.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law protects public servants and the president against “words, gestures, threats, or writing of any kind” that are “abusive or defamatory” and would “impair the dignity of or respect for their office.” The law also prohibits racially or ethnically motivated hate speech. The law mandates a penalty of six months to five years in jail and a fine of approximately 10,000 to 50,000 Burundian francs ($8 to $40) for insulting the head of state. Some journalists, lawyers, political party, and civil society or NGO leaders alleged that the government used these articles to intimidate and harass them.
In May by decision of the cabinet, the government suspended for three days a popular call-in program aired on the private, independent African Public Radio because the host permitted a prominent opposition political party leader to call the president a thief and murderer for 10 minutes before cutting him off. The program resumed broadcasting and subsequently aired numerous live and taped interviews with prominent opposition political party leaders.
Following the massacre of civilians in a bar near Gatumba on September 18, the Burundian National Security Council (NSC) directed the media to “refrain from any communication that may undermine peace and security and not publish, comment on or analyze” information related to the ongoing investigation of the massacre. A few days after the NSC directives, most of the radio stations in the country flouted the NSC order by broadcasting interviews about the massacre simultaneously on all of their stations; the government took no actions against them. The stations complied with the order after this single act of defiance.
Libel Laws/National Security: Libel laws prohibit the public distribution of information that exposes a person to “public contempt” and carry penalties of prison terms and fines. The crime of treason, which includes knowingly demoralizing the military or the nation in a manner that endangers national defense during a time of war, carries a criminal penalty of life imprisonment. It is a crime for anyone knowingly to disseminate or publicize false rumors likely to alarm the people or to excite them against the government or promote civil war. It is illegal for anyone to display drawings, posters, photographs and other items that may disturb the public peace. Penalties range from two months to three years and fines. Some journalists, lawyers, and political party, civil society, and NGO leaders alleged that the government used these laws to intimidate and harass them.
On May 13, the High Court of Bujumbura, on appeal, acquitted NetPress editor and owner Jean Claude Kavumbagu of treason, libel, and harmful imputation but confirmed the charge of “publishing information likely to harm the assets of the state and the national economy.” He paid the fine of 100,000 Burundian francs ($80) and was immediately released. Kavumbagu was sentenced to eight months in prison but was immediately released as he had already spent 10 months in pretrial detention. The state prosecutor had requested a life sentence.