Four journalists and their driver were charged in Burundi on Saturday with undermining national security judicial sources told AFP, after being arrested while covering fighting with rebels from neighbouring DR Congo, a police official told AFP.
The Burundian reporters were detained on Tuesday while reporting in Bubanza, in the country’s northwest, prompting calls from free press groups for their immediate release.
The journalists, from the Iwacu newspaper, one of the last independent publications in Burundi, were detained along with their driver while trying to speak to residents fleeing fighting between rebels and national forces.
At least 14 members of the RED-Tabara, an organisation based in eastern DR Congo headed by a Burundian opposition figure, were killed in the violence, the first of its kind in Burundi since 2017.
The reporters and their driver faced court in Bubanza on Saturday, where prosecutor Clément Ndikuriyo accused them of “complicity in undermining the internal security of the state,” the police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.
“The five were then taken to the central prison in Bubanza where they were imprisoned,” he added.
Under Burundi’s penal code they could face between five and 10 years in prison if found guilty.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Human Rights Watch have called for the journalists’ immediate release.
Iwacu — one of the last independent publications in the country — has previously reported on cases of extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests during attacks in this area of Burundi.
Burundi has been locked in crisis since President Pierre Nkurunziza in April 2015 announced he would seek a controversial third term in office, sparking civil unrest that has left 1,200 dead and over 400,000 displaced.
The next presidential election is scheduled to be held in 2020.
RSF recently warned that there was such a crackdown on the media in Burundi that “there is a risk of all forms of independent journalism disappearing” less than a year before the election.
Burundi is currently ranked 159th out of 180 countries by RSF’s world press freedom index.