Burundi radio station ban lifted as media council chair resigns

Thursday, July 28, 2005

One of Burundi's most popular radio stations, "Radio Publique Africain", has been allowed to re-open.

RPA was forcibly shut down on Friday July 22, allegedly on the orders of President Domitien Ndayizeye.

The move came just a day after RPA resumed broadcasting, having observed an earlier two-day ban, following a disagreement with Burundi's "National Communications Council" (CNC).

The CNC had accused RPA of giving disproportionate coverage to the opposition FDD party, who heavily defeated Ndayizeye's FRODEBU party in last month's national elections. Ndayizeye is due to relinquish power in August.

The radio station's Director, Alexis Sinduhije, had denied the CNC's charges. President Ndayizeye was quoted by BBC monitoring as saying that he had decided to close the radio station to "safeguard the integrity of state institutions."

The closure of RPA was condemned in Burundi, where the radio station, founded in 2001 to promote reconciliation between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups, has a wide following. The US-based "Committee to Protect Journalists" led international condemnation of the ban, which Burundi's "Collectif des Professionels des Médias de la Diaspora Burundaise" described as an "abuse of power", setting up an online petition in protest.

"The National Council of Communication judged that RPA has respected council sanctions, but we have also allowed the radio to reopen because a lot of people requested it," CNC chairman Jean Pierre Manda told Reuters, earlier this week.

Manda has now resigned, although he denies that the move is connected with the row over RPA, and cites "personal reasons". The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that the CNC is to be reformed, with Radio Publique Africain's Deputy Director sitting on the board in future.

There is some confusion over when the ban was lifted, with Reporters Sans Frontieres and the Committee to Protect Journalists reporting that it remained in place until Wednesday this week, while Reuters claims that the ban was lifted on Monday.

RPA Director Alexis Sinduhije has told Reuters that some of the radio station's material has been destroyed by the Burundian police, and suggested that broadcasting will not resume until a damage inventory has been taken.

This week's row is merely the latest manifestation of a long-running personal dispute between President Ndayizeye and the RPA Director Alexis Sinduhije, says journalist Gratien Rukindikiza, writing on the Burundian news website Burundi.news.free.fr. Rukindikiza traces the root of the affair to a telephone call last year in which Ndayizeye tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Sinduhije to endorse his campaign, through Radio Publique Africain, to amend Burundi's constitution. The amendment would have allowed Ndayizeye to seek a second term in power, in contravention of a 2003 peace agreement.