Cyprien Ndikumana is director of the Centre for Promotion of Freedom of Expression and Tolerance in the Great Lakes region (CPFETGL) and also of the Burundi Press House. In an interview with IRIN in Bujumbura, he talks about freedom of expression in the Great Lakes region.
QUESTION: How freely can people express themselves in Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)?
ANSWER: Freedom of expression is respected neither in Rwanda, Burundi, nor the DRC due to the war prevailing in those countries. In fact, there is no freedom of expression nor of the press. The media is censored in all three countries. Those in power and the army do not allow journalists and members of the opposition to criticise them.
Our centre was stopped from organising a training session for journalists based on the themes of rights and the professional code of ethics, although we already had a sponsor. All this aims at making sure that freedom of the press does not become a reality in our region. It also shows that a lot remains to be done by members of the civil society and journalists.
Q: How do restrictions on freedom of expression compare in the three countries?
A: Some progress has been made in Burundi compared to other countries in the Great Lakes region because we have many private radios and the media environment has greatly improved in recent times. But Radio Publique Africaine and Radio Bonesha have also had problems in recent days. This shows that journalists should get mobilised and work together to safeguard freedom of the press.
There are also financial constraints in addition to the problems mentioned before. The Renouveau (a government-owned daily paper), for example, issues only 1,000 copies at a time, is not regular and has almost come to a halt. Ubumwe (a Kirundi weekly owned by government) is also not regular, and does not reach rural areas. These problems are serious. That is why we have acquired printing equipment which has already arrived at the international airport. It will allow journalists to produce their newspapers at a lower cost and also allow newspapers which were forced to close down to reopen.
Q: Rwanda recently published a media bill. In your view will it make the work of journalists any easier?
A: This new law opens up the media and is a positive development. We have been informed that seven radios have applied for registration at the ministry of territorial administration. This is a great achievement in Rwanda and will open up the media both there and the region.
Q: What about eastern DRC, which is currently under rebel control?
A: The situation there is also affected by the war and the prevailing economic conditions. Our correspondent there, for example, has problems feeding our website because he has to pay five dollars per minute in an internet-café. All this hinders the freedom of the press. Also because eastern DRC is an occupied region journalists cannot freely make criticisms. Some newspapers have even had to close down.
Q: What about claims that journalists have also been accused of fuelling conflicts in the region?
A: In the past some journalists have published hate messages here in Burundi, in Rwanda and the DRC. Everybody is aware of the fact that in 1993, 1994 and 1996 newspapers controlled by political parties preached hatred. Journalists are reorganising themselves today but a lot remains to be done. We have to respect the professional code of ethics.
That is why we also hope that the Rwandese government will register our subregional organisation which has a noble objective and aims at making sure journalists are united and can contribute to the restoration of peace.