The president of Burundi on Wednesday stood behind a life sentence handed down to a radio reporter for interviewing a militant group leader in the eastern African state, prompting an outcry from media organisations, members of the press and international press watchdog groups.
Hassan Ruvakuki, a reporter for Radio France Internationale, was convicted of terrorism last week along with 13 others after an explosion at a bar in a town near the Burundi-Tanzania border left 30 dead last September.
Ravakuki was charged after interviewing a man believed to be the leader of a rebel group called the Front for the Restoration of Democracy, last November near the Tanzanian border.
Reporters and journalists believe that the court was pressured into handing down this sentence and that its decision was politically motivated. Last year, the Burundian National Council proposed a ban against media and civil society organizations that reported on or documented the Front for the Restoration of Democracy and their activities.
Georges Nikiza, a prominent member of the independent journalists association in Burundi told the AFP they would actively challenge the conviction in courts and elsewhere. According to Nikiza, the association’s members would pressure the government to reverse the conviction by boycotting government functions, including notable celebrations, such as the 50th anniversary of Burundi’s independence scheduled in August.
“The journalists are angry about the situation,’’ Nikiza told AFP.
“They feel that this decision is incompetent … and should not be respected.’’
The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists has also condemned the ruling.
“Ruvakuki’s defense counsel said the judges had not been impartial during the trial and that the government was pressuring the court to find a conviction,” the press watchdog wrote in a press release on its web site.
According to Reporters Without Borders, the east African nation is among the most dangerous for journalists to work in, with independent reporters frequently suffering harassment from government authorities.
he arrests of journalists are an effective tool to silence opposition in one-party and other repressive states.