Trial of Burundian journalist

16 January 2013 | ResolutionPossible

During our visit to Bujumbura in October 2012 the journalists and broadcasters we met talked extensively about freedom of press in Burundi in general and the trial of journalist Hassan Ruvakuki in particular. Ruvakuki, employed by Radio France Internationale and the local Bonesha FM, was arrested after interviewing the alleged leader of a Burundian armed group opposing the current government. The group is based across the border in Tanzania. The arrest followed an attack in Cankuzo province, Tanzania.

Ruvakuki was initially charged, along with 22 others, of collaborating with rebels. This was subsequently raised to collaborating with terrorists and he was handed a life sentence in June 2012. Local journalists upheld that Ruvakuki had no connection to the group and was simply doing his job as an investigative journalist by conducting an interview with its leader.

People we met felt that Burundi is largely ignored on international platforms, and local journalists work closely with networks like Reporters Without Borders to raise the profile of regional issues. The director of Bonesha FM, Patrick Nduwimana, told us that in Burundi “justice is in the pocket of the government“, so international pressure would be key to appealing Ruvakuki’s sentence.

The BBC recently reported that the terrorism charges against Ruvakuki have been dropped and his sentence reduced to three years. We asked Patrick for his thoughts on the development.

“My reaction to this new verdict against our journalist Hassan Ruvakuki, is a feeling of disappointment and shocking. He deserved to be acquitted as he didn’t commit any offence by interviewing a leader of a proclaimed rebellion. He proved during the October and November hearing last year that he acted as an investigative journalist and his lawyers tried to explain to the appeal judges that Burundi’s press law allowed Hassan to chase breaking information everywhere.

It’s true that the appeal court has reduced the prison term to three years by redefining the offence, but again Hassan does not deserve that conviction. In this case, judges have been influenced by people on power who wanted Hassan to stay in jail by any means. Hassan’s trial is a political one.

Radio Bonesha together with local and international media will continue to fight until Hassan is acquitted. We will appeal to the Supreme Court. With regard to Burundi’s criminal law, Hassan can benefit from a conditional release because has has already spent a quarter of the latest three-year prison term. Even if this happens, we will go to the court until he is acquitted because he is innocent.”

We are not here to comment on whether the allegations against Ruvakuki are true or false, but to pose questions about journalism and justice this story raises. For instance, how close is too close when investigating politically sensitive issues? What role should the law play in the field of journalism? These questions are also relevant to debates that followed Lord Leveson’s recent report about new press regulations in the UK.

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