March 5, 2015 / 10:03 AM / 5 years ago

Burundi lawmakers pass media bill to expand press freedoms

BUJUMBURA (Reuters) - Burundi’s national assembly has approved a draft media law, backtracking from contentious 2013 legislation that was denounced by reporters and rights groups as an assault on press freedoms.

The old law banned the media from publishing stories about national defence, public safety and even the local currency. It also threatened to punish reporters who broke the rules with fines well above their wages and forced them to reveal sources.

Information Minister Tharcisse Nkezabihizi said he hoped the new law, once fully ratified, would ease rising tension between the media and the government in this east-central African nation, recovering from more than a decade of civil war.

Burundi is due to hold parliamentary and local elections on May 26, followed by an election to pick the president on June 26 and another to elect the senate on July 17.

The bill, which was approved by the national assembly late on Wednesday, now goes to the Senate.

Burundi’s journalists union, UBJ, applauded the new text after branding the original law as unconstitutional.

“Lawmakers did a great job. Almost all the provisions which were endangering our profession have been removed,” said Alexandre Niyungeko, the UBJ chairman.

While many of the most contentious pieces of the existing law have been removed, the new draft law still allows for a journalist or media company to be prosecuted for publishing “news which violates Burundi criminal law”.

UBJ says it fears the government might use that provision to arrest journalists.

The detention in January of popular radio host Bob Rugurika for refusing to identify an unnamed guest linked to the murder of three Italian nuns has drawn attention to media freedom in the country.

Rugurika faces charges of complicity in murder and concealing a criminal, although the government is no longer trying to compel him to reveal his source.

He was released on bail in February after the U.S. government, EU politicians, human rights groups and journalist organisations called for him to be freed.

Burundi’s constitutional court rejected some of the original law’s provisions, and, last month, journalists presented their objections to the East African Court of Justice and requested a complete review of the law.

A ruling in that case has yet to be issued.

Reporting by Patrick Nduwimana; Editing by Edith Honan and Crispian Balmer

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