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Another piece in the puzzle of shrinking space for civic freedoms in East Africa?

Step by step Burundi is reverting to the police state of the 1980s and 1990s during which human rights defenders and journalists were routinely portrayed publicly as enemies of the state. This is now the trend in East Africa.

The welcome announcement of the provisional release of human rights defender and journalist Bob Rugurika was a rare piece of good news in an otherwise gloomy environment for human rights defenders in Burundi. But the fact remains that the case against him is still pending. He was only released on payment of an exceptionally high bail bond of 15 million francs (approx $9,600) and is subject to restrictions which make it extremely difficult for him to do his job as a journalist. His case is in many ways similar to that of Pierre Claver Mbonimba who was released on health grounds but is also subject to stringent restrictions which prevent him from travelling, going to the airport or even going on air.

The cases against Bob Rugurika and Pierre Claver Mbonimpa are just the latest attacks on freedom of expression and the media in Burundi. In June 2013, the Burundian government passed a new media law which grants the state unchecked authority to ban publication of any information it deems detrimental to national security, public safety, morality, and the national economy. The law also allows the state to control news coverage by giving it the authority to issue press cards and accreditation to journalists.

According to a recent report published by the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, “Human rights defenders in Burundi are operating in one of the most restrictive and hostile environments in East Africa as evidenced by an alarming pattern of harassment, intimidation, threats, and legislative reforms, all targeting Burundian human rights defenders”. Step by step Burundi is reverting to the police state of the 1980s and 1990s during which human rights defenders and journalists were routinely portrayed publicly as enemies of the state.

Human rights defenders in Burundi speak of “an undeniable, extremely concerning, and worsening pattern of harassment, stigmatisation, intimidation and attacks against human rights defenders, and a marked narrowing of the space for civil society more broadly”. Recent developments such as the prohibition of public gatherings and attacks on members of opposition political parties raise concerns about a further escalation of violence in the run up to the June 2015 elections. The restrictions on NGOs, the silencing of the independent media and the creation of pro-government NGOs, set up to counteract the criticism of government policies by established human rights defenders, demonstrate clearly the government's determination to brook no opposition.

The cases of Bob Rugurika and Pierre Claver Mbonimpa reflect a dangerous trend across East Africa where an increasing number of human rights defenders are being targeted because they speak out for human rights and demand accountability from government. This regional trend is itself part of a global backlash against human rights defenders and civil society.

In the last two years more than 50 countries have either introduced or debated the introduction of restrictive NGO legislation targeting in particular those NGOs working on issues of accountability, governance and human rights. Though they seek to uphold international and domestic legal standards, civil society actors and human rights defenders are portrayed as sources of political opposition and it is no coincidence that the term foreign agent is increasingly used to smear them.

This trend is particularly clear in a number of countries in the East and Horn of Africa region. In Ethiopia, civil society has been effectively shut down as restrictive NGO and funding laws make it impossible for them to carry out their work. The Zone 9 bloggers are currently facing trial on charges of terrorism and conspiracy for using basic online encryption tools that journalists routinely use to protect their sources. In Uganda, the right to freedom of assembly has come under attack through the Public Order Management Act, which imposes wide-ranging restrictions on public meetings. This legislation has led to police suppressing gatherings involving political opposition groups and crackdowns on activists.

In Rwanda, civil society organisations have long suffered from state intimidation and infiltration. The takeover in 2013 of the leadership of the Rwandan League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights (LIPRODHOR) by members sympathetic to the government signalled an end to effective human rights activism in the country. Until then, LIPRODHOR was widely seen as the country's only remaining rights group committed to its independence.

In Kenya, the proposed 15 percent budget limit on the receipt of foreign funding by NGOs, eventually rejected by parliament, was a worrying attempt to restrict the capacity and activities of NGOs. Persistent threats to reintroduce an amendment in that regard raise serious concerns that Kenya might eventually take a leaf from Ethiopia, where a similar law that brought virtually all human rights organisations to their knees was enacted in 2009.

In a region devastated by war, internal conflict and attacks on civilian targets by illegal armed groups, the widespread introduction of such repressive legislation accompanied by attacks on political opposition and the silencing of independent or critical voices can only create the conditions for further violence.

As the East Africa Court of Justice ponders whether to challenge Burundi's restrictive press law the question is – where to from here, not only for Burundi but for the region. The only way to block or even challenge this sinister trend is for NGOs to stand together and support each other. But what is needed more than anything else is courageous and principled political leadership from rulers who are prepared to defend the rights of their people against kleptocrats and bullies – and to remove from their governments those who only serve in order to enrich themselves.

Meanwhile the dropping of all remaining charges against Bob Rugurika and Pierre Claver Mbonimpa would be a good starting point.

* Aloys Habimana is Protection Coordinator for Africa at Front Line Defenders.



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