On 9 February 2015, the East African Court of Justice will start hearing a case challenging the legality of Burundi’s Press Law. The case has been brought by the Burundi Journalists’ Union, with the support of the Media Legal Defence Initiative.
The Press Law imposes a system of media regulation that will be government-controlled and that will severely limit media freedom. It was adopted in 2013 with a view to Burundi’s general elections, due to take place in May and June this year, as one of a package of laws that will control public debate and are likely to hinder a fair and open democratic process.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has commented that he “regrets” the adoption of the Press Law and press freedom and human rights organisations have labelled it “a grave threat to freedom of expression.”
This will be the first time the East African Court of Justice considers a case concerning the role of the media in democracy. The Law imposes a compulsory accreditation scheme for all journalists in Burundi, requires journalists to reveal their confidential sources under a broadly defined set of circumstances, and imposes strict content restrictions requiring journalists to publish “balanced” information and prohibiting publication of anything relating to national security.
The Law effectively allows for prior censorship and imposes heavy fines on editors and journalists who violate the law. The Burundi Journalists’ Union complains that this makes it impossible for journalists to function as a watchdog of democracy, which is particularly crucial during elections, and will ask the Court to rule that the law violates the East African Community Treaty.
Over the last year the National Communications Council, the government-appointed body that enforces the Press Law, has increasingly used the Law to intimidate and prosecute journalists. This is expected to continue and mirror the pattern of media repression during the 2010 election period, when independent journalists and other perceived critics of the government were repeatedly threatened and harassed, according to Human Rights Watch.
The Court is expected to hand down judgment in March. Its findings will be crucial not only for Burundi and other Partner States of the East African Community (Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda), but will be influential in many other countries around the world who employ similar laws to straitjacket independent journalism.