A Burundi judge gave local journalist Hassan Ruvakuki, a reporter for local radio station Bonesha FM and Radio France Internationale, life imprisonment after he was charged with "participating in acts of terrorism.”
This outrageous miscarriage of justice in the name of fighting terrorism has shocked all of us. Burundi is just one of the many countries that have followed the lead of settled democracies which, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, enacted laws that undermine freedom of expression under the cloak of national security. Later on, these restrictions mushroomed all over the world, spawning a culture of routine official surveillance of citizens and expanding relentlessly to include extensive use of official secret acts, censorship of controversial and sensitive materials, the race to re-classify documents to avoid public scrutiny; and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Ruvakuki was charged in November 2011 along with 13 others for his involvement in what the Burundian government described as “a terrorist attack” that took place in September 2011 near the border with Tanzania. Ruvakuki thought he was doing his job as journalist when he interviewed Pierre Claver Kabirigi, a former police officer who claimed to be the leader of a new rebel group, the Front for the Restoration of Democracy-Abanyagihugu. When he got back home security agents arrested him, searched his home and later charged him.
Authorities rarely grasp the fact that the job of a journalist is to deal with all sides of a conflict. And when you have anti-terror laws designed to stifle freedom of expression, it does not take long to make journalists who speak to leaders of a proscribed organisation to fall foul of the law. For Ruvakuki doing what hundreds of journalists do everyday has now put him in prison for life. This is absurd and unacceptable.
His lawyers have lodged an appeal and his union has launched a campaign, supported by the IFJ, calling for the verdict to be overturned and demanding his immediate release. As long as these laws remain unchallenged many more journalists will be caught out and live through the same terrible ordeal.
This is exactly what the IFJ warned against at its Journalism in the Shadow of Terror Laws conference last September to mark 10 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
We called among several things for all the laws hastily enacted to be reviewed and some struck off from the statute book to ensure compliance with international human rights and freedom of expression norms. As long as governments continue to sacrifice civil liberties under the pretext of security, journalists like Ruvakuki will run the risk not just of being gagged but of being locked up, through no fault of their own, in all probability for life.