Support Jean-Claude Kavumbagu – Guest blog for Index on Censorship
While Burundi’s war criminals go unpunished, my friend faces “treason” trial over critical article, says Richard Wilson
What do you do when someone you love gets murdered in a distant country you know almost nothing about? A decade ago my sister Charlotte died in a massacre in the small Central African state of Burundi. In the years that followed I was consumed by a need to understand why she had been killed, who had been responsible, and what, if anything could be done to bring them to book. Only a handful of people in the world could help me. Almost all were journalists. One of them was Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, editor of Burundi’s Netpress news agency.
The information, advice and contacts Jean-Claude gave me proved vital when I came to write the book about my sister’s life and death, Titanic Express. With truth comes a certain kind of cartharsis. To the extent that one ever can, I’ve “moved on” from what happened. But I will always remain endebted to those who helped my family find answers, asking nothing in return but that we do what we could to focus attention on the outrages happening in their country.
Jean-Claude has been a thorn in the side of successive governments in Burundi, both Hutu and Tutsi. His views are often controversial, but there is no questioning the price he has paid for them. In 1999, a year before my sister’s death, Jean-Claude was arrested by the Tutsi-led regime of Pierre Buyoya and held for two weeks on charges of operating an unregistered newspaper. He was detained again in 2001 by the same regime, and accused of insulting the public prosecutor. 2003 saw the installation of a new, Hutu-led government, which loudly proclaimed its commitment to peace, democracy and human rights. Three months later, Jean-Claude was arrested yet again and charged with “insulting the authorities”.
Elections in 2005 saw a landslide win for the Hutu ex-rebel leader Pierre Nkurunziza, who has gained plaudits for his talk of “forgiveness” and “reconciliation”. Sadly, Nkurunziza has been markedly unforgiving of critical coverage by the independent media. While no serious efforts have been made to prosecute those responsible for the ethnic massacres that have plagued Burundi over the last two decades, in recent years dozens of independent journalists have been detained or threatened over their work.