Burundi’s Repressive Press Laws Challenged
MLDI and the Burundi Union of Journalists are hoping that the case against the government will begin in the last quarter of 2014.
One year after the Burundian parliament adopted a repressive press law that has seen journalists threatened with heavy fines and some of their sources imprisoned, the country's journalists' union and the Media Legal Defence Initiative are hopeful that their day in court to challenge the law is near.
The press law is one of several tough pieces of legislation targeting journalists and NGOs that have been adopted in the run-up to next year's presidential and parliamentary elections. Burundi's constitutional court has since ruled that four small parts of the law were anti-constitutional - but the most problematic articles remain in place.
Alexandre Niyungeko, the founding president of the 300-member Burundi Union of Journalists, says: "It's a backwards and freedom-killing law."
Reporters investigating allegations of weapons distribution to members of the youth league of Burundi's ruling political party have been regularly summoned by prosecutors, demanding that they reveal their sources and hand over their drafts and other documents.
"In all corners of the country there are people in prison and who have been arrested because they spoke to journalists," says Alexandre Niyungeko. "By scaring off our potential sources of information, they stop us reporting on these subjects that hold public figures to account. It is an attack on press freedom and the freedom of expression."
Reporters also face fines of up to 10 million francs (approximately £4,000) if their reports on sensitive issues are considered to risk disturbing public order. Another complaint is that the body issuing press cards is now attached to the president's office.
Journalists working for state-owned media have felt the greatest pressure to self-censor. Alexandre says: "My employer has always had problems with my position (as president of the union). I've been given disciplinary action, suspensions, role changes - but I'm still wedded to this profession.
"At the same time it's encouraging that independent media are continuing to cover sensitive issues, even if we all know that it could lead to a prison sentence."
Alexandre adds: "As a union we're always appealing to our colleagues to keep up this battle. It's better to be pursued for something we have done than be blamed for not having done our job.
"We have a very important job to do - every journalist provides a public service and we must stick together."
MLDI drafted and lodged the legal challenge with the East-African Court of Justice. Senior Legal Counsel Nani Jansen says: "Burundi had a press law that was quite fine. If you look at the responses from whichever international actor you can think of, everyone is saying they are turning back the clock.
"We filed everything we needed to last July. It took Burundi until December to file a response, which was way too late according to the court's guidelines, and this has delayed things considerably.
"Our petition is comprehensive in addressing all the flaws in the law. We hope that the case will begin in the last quarter of this year. Depending on the outcome, either party could still file an appeal."
MLDI is working with leading Kenyan lawyer Donald Deya to represent the Burundi Union of Journalists at the East African Court of Justice. The union is also represented locally by Burundian lawyers Armel Niyongere and François Nyamoya.
Alexandre Niyungeko concludes: "We have received a substantial amount of support from MLDI and the case is progressing very well. The organisation has supplied us with highly qualified lawyers. I hope that the case will reach court soon so that this law can be thrown out definitively."