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Burundi: New Media Law on President

(May 28, 2013) Burundi’s bi-cameral legislature recently passed a controversial new media law, with the final vote in the Senate on April 19, 2013. Organizations devoted to freedom of the press have voiced concerns about the restrictions the law places on accessibility to information sources and the increased sentences it would impose for some media-related offenses while de-criminalizing others. Reporters sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders) has asked President Pierre Nkurunziza not to sign the bill and has noted that “[w]ith two years to go until the next national elections, its promulgation would have disastrous consequences for pluralism, transparency and democracy in general in Burundi.” (Reporters sans Frontières, Burundi: Media Law’s Threat to Freedom of Information, ALL AFRICA.COM (May 7, 2013).)

According to the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (EHAHRDP), the new law would create exceptions to the right of journalists not to reveal sources. The exceptions would apply to matters related to state security, public order, defense secrets, and “the physical or moral integrity” of one or more people. There are also certain topics journalists would not be able to cover, including information deemed to be false and propaganda for enemies of the country, even in peacetime. (Burundi: Amend New Press Law (EHAHRDP), PROTECTIONLINE.) EHAHRDP describes itself as seeking to “strengthen the work of human rights defenders … throughout the region by reducing their vulnerability to the risk of persecution and by enhancing their capacity to effectively defend human rights.” (About EHAHRDP, EHAHRDP website (last visited May 13, 2013).)

The Burundi Union of Journalists has also objected to the proposed legislation and collected more than 11,000 signatures on a petition protesting it. The Union’s head, Alexandre Niyungeko, has said that the part of the bill that is most questionable is the protection given to information sources. He stated “if the law is promulgated, it will no longer be easy for journalists to write about issues of financial impropriety or corruption.” The reason it would be hard to report on the subject is that the law places restrictions on access to information with a bearing on the national economy. (Burundians Sign Petition to Stop Promulgation of New Media Law, RADIO FRANCE INTERNATIONALE (May 8, 2013), World News Connection online subscription database, Doc. No. 201305081477.1_6d3c002336c3f253.)

Niyungeko also noted that the fines for violating the law could go as high as eight million Burundi francs (about US$5,000) and could result in any fined media organization going out of business. (Id.) Burundi is a country with a 67% poverty rate, and the gross national income per capita in 2011 was estimated to be the equivalent of US$250. (Burundi at a Glance, World Bank website (Mar. 17, 2013).)

There have been several recent incidents in which members of the press have been attacked in Burundi. On April 26, 2013, a television journalist was attacked in his home by armed thieves who took his computer. The next day a reporter who witnesseda police officer extorting money from men carrying fruit to market was beaten and shot in the arm by a police officer. After a fast-tracked procedure, the policeman involved in that case was sentenced to 15 years in prison. (Burundi Reporter Shot by Police Officer, NEWS 24 (Apr. 27, 2013).)