Press freedom watchdog 'outraged' by closure of Burundi radio station

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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

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The Burundian authorities have forcibly shut down one of Burundi's most popular independent radio stations, Radio Publique Africain. The move came despite a compromise deal agreed last week between RPA and the Burundian authorities.

Burundi's National Communications Council (CNC) had ordered the indefinite suspension of RPA on July 15th, claiming that its coverage of recent elections had been biased, and that the radio station had insulted them. The station's Director Alexis Sinduhije rejected the allegations, and Burundian media groups accused the CNC of acting as a tool of political repression. Following negotiations, the authorities lifted the indefinite ban, after RPA agreed to a 2-day suspension.

RPA went off air on Monday July 18th. Broadcasts were resumed on Thursday morning, but less than 48 hours later the authorities were attempting to shut down the station again.

Bujumbura journalist Gregoire Wakana, writing on the African news website abarundi.org, reported a tense stand-off outside the radio station on Friday afternoon, as around 30 soldiers, led by Colonel Ildephonse Mushwabure, tried to gain entry. "The suspense lasted several hours, and a large crowd gathered, with several Burundian journalists coming to watch the fate of their RPA colleagues".

Abarundi.org reports "widespread indignation" over RPA's closure, with onlookers shouting angrily at the authorities as they moved in on the station. Some later threw stones at a nearby building owned by the Burundian President Domitien Ndayizeye.

Abarundi.org notes that Colonel Mushwabure is a controversial figure in Burundi, after giving contradictory statements to a UN inquiry over his whereabouts during the 1993 coup led to the assassination of the country's first democratic president, Melchior Ndadaye. Last month's elections were the first since the coup, which plunged Burundi into more than a decade of vicious, ethnically-charged civil war.

Earlier this week, the head of the UN's electoral unit in Burundi praised the country's media, saying it had "masterfully played its role of democratic watchdog by helping Burundians to allay their fears and go to the polls".

The dispute between RPA and the Burundian government has been monitored by the international press freedom watchdog the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

"RPA fell silent around 5 p.m. local time as police broke into the station compound, padlocked its studios, and cut off its transmitter. It was not immediately clear if any RPA staff had been arrested, although one journalist told the CPJ in a brief phone call, "they are taking us to the police station", they announced in a press release on Friday.

"No one is above the law. Sanctions must be taken against whoever breaks the law... African Public Radio continues to show its lack of respect towards the authorities", the National Communications Council chairman Jean-Pierre Manda was quoted by Reuters as saying on Saturday.

The council had accused RPA of giving disproportionate coverage to the opposition FDD party in recent elections.

The FDD heavily defeated President Domitien Ndayizeye's FRODEBU party, gaining a majority of seats in the country's National Assembly, with 58% of the popular vote. The party is now expected to form the next government.

Abarundi.org reports that the men who broke into the radio station were unable to produce any kind of warrant. RPA's director Alexis Sinduhije told Reuters he had evidence Ndayizeye issued the order to shut down the radio station, calling it "an abuse of power".

"If they (the communication council) believe I have insulted them, they must go to court, but not punish the radio and the public audience," Reuters quoted him as saying.

"CPJ is outraged at the Burundian authorities' failure to deliver on their promise,", said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper, in a press release. "We call on President Ndayizeye to ensure that RPA can resume broadcasting immediately, allowing journalists to work freely without fear of reprisal."

Quoting Burundi National Radio and Television, BBC monitoring has reported that President Domitien Ndayizeye met representatives of a media organization on Saturday to discuss the reopening of Radio Publique Africaine.

The president reportedly decided to close the radio in order to "safeguard the integrity of state institutions."

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