Using Terror Charges to Stifle Independent Reporting
May 12, 2012 § Leave a comment
May 10, 2012, J. David Goodman
Friday 10:02 a.m. | Updated Prosecutors in the eastern African nation of Burundi are seeking a life sentence for 23 journalists, including one working for Radio France International, who have been charged with “participating in acts of terrorism,” according to Reporters Without Borders and local journalists.
The sentences were among the harshest punishments threatened during a disquieting spate of prosecutions using terror laws to quash independent reporting and stifle dissent.
In Ethiopia, a verdict was expected on Friday in the case of a prominent journalist and blogger, Eskinder Nega, who was arrested last year during a crackdown on journalists that saw broad antiterrorism laws applied to at least 11 reporters there. But the court in Addis Ababa said it would postpone the decision until next month.
Mr. Nega, who won a prestigious press freedom award this month, could face the death penalty if convicted of aiding terror groups with his reports, though his wife, speaking to The New York Times last week, said that such a severe outcome was unlikely. No journalist has been sentenced to death in Ethiopia, though several have received harsh prison terms, including two Swedish reporters sentenced to 11 years for their reports from a restive region of the country.
In Burundi, prosecutors said on Tuesday that if convicted, Hassan Ruvakuki, who works for the Swahili branch of Radio France International, and 22 others would face life sentences for charges stemming from reports on a violent rebel group.
Journalism advocates have questioned the basis of the charges and the impartiality of the judicial proceedings. “Conducting an interview is not an act of terrorism,” said Tom Rhodes, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, in a statement. “Burundian authorities are misusing the law to punish a journalist for airing material they did not like.”
A majority of the journalists, including Mr. Ruvakiki, refused to enter a plea, saying the trial was not being conducted under proper procedures. The others pleaded not guilty.
Similar charges have been brought against journalists in Turkey, as The Times reported earlier this year.
Nedim Sener, a veteran investigative journalist there who was looking into a terror network plotting against the government, found himself accused of abetting the very same terrorist organization, arrested and put on trial along with another reporter, Ahmet Sik, and several editors. The two reporters are now free on bail but still facing long prison terms if convicted.