CIPESA Joins Call Urging Burundi Gov't To #KeepItOn During Elections

Joint Letter |

The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) has joined 30 international human  rights advocacy groups of the #KeepItOn coalition in urging authorities in Burundi to ensure that the May 20, 2020 elections will be void of any network disruption of digital communications  and to enable voters to freely elect their leaders.

The state of internet freedom in Burundi has been precarious due to the continued tightened  control over independent media and critical online publishers by the government. See the 2019 report on the State of Internet Freedom in Burundi

The coalition has submitted a joint letter to the government of Burundi to ensure open, secure and stable access to the internet and social media platforms throughout the country’s presidential elections. The signatories appealed to the authorities in Burundi to consider the following recommendations to guarantee citizens’ active participation in the elections:

  • Ensure that the internet, including social media and other digital communication platforms, remains accessible throughout the elections
  • Ensure that the Agence de Régulation et de Contrôle des Télécommunications (ARCT) and the Conseil National de la Communication take all the necessary regulatory measures to ensure internet service providers  (ISPs) inform people of any form of disruption or interference in the provision of internet access
  • Order the unblocking of all websites of independent media outlets that are currently inaccessible in the country

. Read the joint letter.

A New Interception Law and Blocked Websites: The Deteriorating State of Internet Freedom in Burundi

By CIPESA Writer |

 The state of internet freedom in Burundi continues to decline as the government of President Pierre Nkurunziza tightens control over independent media and critical online publishers. Of recent, frivolous sanctions have been slapped against media houses, access to some online publishers’ websites restricted, and last May, an obnoxious law was enacted that makes it easier for security agencies to conduct surveillance on citizens’ communications with little judicial oversight.

The deteriorating situation follows a May 2015 coup attempt which saw the physical destruction of five private radio and televisions stations by loyalist forces and pro-government militia, and the arrest of several journalists. The events were preceded by a government order to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block access to social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and Viber, so as to curtail demonstrations against Nkurunziza’s bid to run for a new term in office.

On May 11, 2018 Burundi’s president assented to Law No 1/09 of May 11 2018, which amends the Code of Criminal Procedure of 2013. Under Article 47 of the new law, government agencies carrying out investigations can intercept electronic communications and seize computer data. Further, Articles 69, 70 and 71, permit the public prosecutor to issue a written order to start interception of electronic communication of a person under investigation.  Moreover, the public prosecutor has the right to instruct service providers and “any qualified agent” from a department or agency under the authority or supervision of the telecoms minister to install any device to facilitate interception.

On the issue of seizure of computer data, Article 72 grants the public prosecutor, without notifying a person under investigation, the right to order the use of technical tools to access data on the suspect’s device (wherever it is located), to save that data, and transmit it. The tool also has the aim of real time capture of data being received or transmitted by the suspect’s device or being typed on the device. The initial duration of this order is a maximum of six months but this period can be extended for another six months if needed. The seized data has to be destroyed after trial. Articles 73 to 79 provide details of conditions in which the technical tool is used.

The new law, which was introduced on April 28 and passed within two weeks, is deemed to be in contravention of the constitution. A human right activist has stated  that the law is “clearly a wish to legalise the illegal and arbitrary practices that the forces of law and order have already resorted to for the last three years.” On the contrary, the justice minister defended the law, arguing that the amendments were necessary to give the prosecutor and other government organs powers to address new forms of criminal activity that have emerged in the last few years.

The amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedure come into place when online news media is under attack. Since October 2017, the websites of independent local news publishers,, and cannot be accessed from Burundi except through use of circumvention methods such as proxies. Tests using the network measurement tool, Ooni probe  indicate that the websites are blocked from access within Burundi.

In interviews, Iwacu officials confirmed that access to their website was blocked but the Conseil National de la Communication (Burundi’s media regulator) denies any hand in it. Some experts believe the blockage was effected at the level of the Burundi Backbone System (BBS), the primary bandwidth carrier from which most Burundian ISPs purchase bandwidth. Representatives from BBS denied this allegation and advised the news sites to work with ISPs to resolve the matter. Meanwhile, an October 2017 letter to the CNC from the Ikiriho group, an independent online press group (, requesting that its website be unblocked has never received a response.

Interestingly, Isanganiro’s radio station still operates from within Burundi, as is Iwacu’s weekly print newspaper. Online access to the electronic version of Iwacu’s weekly newspaper is charged at USD 27 for a three months subscription, or USD 95 yearly, which means the challenges in accessing its website is affecting the publisher’s revenues. Iwacu accordingly announced an alternative website where readers can access news and has been assisting readers, particularly paying customers, to access its main site using virtual private networks (VPN).

On April 10, 2018, in what seemed like an additional sanction against the online portal, the CNC issued its decision No 100/ CNC/005 ordering Iwacu to ban the comments section of its online news website. The ban followed comments made by the website readers referring to Burundi as a “Banana Republic” while another called the National Police a “presidential police” due to its partisan actions. According to the regulator, the comments violated Article 17 of the Burundi press law No 1/15 of May 9 2015, which requires media groups to rigorously cross-check sources of information before publishing. The three months ban on readers’ comments, is the second slapped on Iwacu by the CNC, the first having been issued in 2013 for similar reasons.

In sanctioning Iwacu, the CNC cited article 55 of the press Law, which gives the communications regulator “the right to suspend or prohibit the use of a press pass (journalist pass or press card), the distribution or the sale of a printed newspapers, a periodical, or any other information medium, the broadcast of a show, the operation of a radio or television station or a news agency, when they do not comply with the law.”

The Iwacu director expressed his sadness at what he deemed an “unfair decision” that would close a “democratic space” where all opinions, both critical and supportive of the Burundi were shared. Nonetheless the comments section was promptly shut down, and currently under each news item there is a message reading: “Due to the CNC’s decision, you cannot react nor add any comment to this article.

In another worrying development, on May 4, 2018, the CNC issued warnings to three radio stations – Radio Isanganiro, Radio CCIB FM+, and Radio France International (RFI, and suspended the licences for BBC and Voice of America (VOA) for six months on allegations of not verifying sources and  broadcasting unbalanced news. The BBC was faulted for interviewing Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, a Burundian human rights defender who fled Burundi after an assassination attempt in 2015. The regulator claims that, in the interview which aired on April 24, 2018, the activist who is now based in Europe made “defamatory statements against the head of state” and incited “hatred”.

The VOA was accused of publishing unverified news on three occasions during April 2018. In addition, the VOA was accused of broadcasting through the Online Radio Box application used by Radio Bonesha, a local station whose frequency license was withdrawn by the media regulator last September. Radio Bonesha is among the media houses whose premises were destroyed in 2015 following the coup attempt but it has continued broadcasting via Online Radio Box.

The various developments in the online sphere reflect a similarly worrying rights situation offline. Nkurunziza’s government has continued to face criticism at home and abroad, including accusations by a United Nations committee of inquiry of extrajudicial killings of civilians, including supporters of the opposition, in what could amount to crimes against humanity.

Some observers believe that all criminal code amendments and measures against online and traditional media aimed to silence dissonant voices at a time the country was about to hold a May 17, 2018 referendum on a new constitution. Majority of voters – 73% – voted in favour of the new constitution but opponents say the poll was full of irregularities.

The Burundi government needs to respect the constitutional rights to free speech, access to information and privacy of the citizens and desist from enacting laws and taking other actions that undermine digital rights. Moreover, it should desist from passing laws and regulations without giving citizens the opportunity to meaningfully provide their views.


Universal Periodic Review: Civic Groups Urge Burundi to Respect Free Expression

By Edrine Wanyama and Kesa Pharatlhatlhe |
The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) alongside Article 19, the East Africa Law Society, the Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU) and DefendDefenders have called for repeal of Burundi’s Penal Code and the 2015 Press Law to address provisions that undermine freedom of expression. In a submission to the third cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Burundi to be considered in January 2018, the five organisations highlighted the worsening situation for freedom of expression and association in Burundi since its last UPR in 2013.
The organisations stress the need for the Burundi government to reopen closed radio stations, create an enabling environment for media freedom, and refrain from attacks against journalists and critics. Additionally, the submission called for the establishment of an independent body to conduct thorough investigations into crimes of violence against journalists and opposition leaders.
The UPR submission covers the legal and regulatory framework on freedom of expression, including restrictions on press freedom, restrictions on freedom of assembly and association as well as freedom of information online and offline in the East African country.
Despite recommendations made to Burundi in the second cycle of the UPR to ensure that these rights are upheld in line with international standards, it continues to maintain a repressive regime. The government has enacted draconian legislation and severely curtailed citizens’ fundamental human rights and basic freedoms.
Article 31 of the country’s constitution guarantees the protection of freedom of expression but it has been undermined by the government’s restrictions on the media, failure to reform existing laws that violate freedom of expression such as the Penal Code Act, and the enactment of laws such as the 2015 Press Law that do not conform to international human rights standards.
In its second review, Burundi received numerous recommendations to safeguard journalists against violence and harassment and to guarantee that journalists and human rights defenders have the freedom to carry out their work independently and without fear of persecution, prosecution or intimidation. However, the country has failed to implement these recommendations. The situation is by the lack of an independent judiciary and law enforcement authorities that condone violations of these rights.
In the latest submission, it is highlighted that the media regulatory body – the National Communications Council (Conseil National de la Communication) lacks independence from the executive and wields broad powers to regulate all media. Additionally, access to information is limited due to the absence of an access to information law..
The submission notes continued efforts to control and limit the online flow of information. It cites cases of government-initiated internet blockages and the arrests of social media users. Further, the introduction of mandatory SIM card registration leaves user information vulnerable to abuse in the absence of a data privacy and protection law.
The report notes that there remain restrictions to freedom of assembly and association including limiting opportunities to demonstrate against the ruling party. Towards the end of 2013, Burundi enacted Law 1/28 to, regulate public demonstrations and assemblies, which contravenes the country’s ’s constitutional guarantees under Article 19 and 32.
The report also notes that the Burundi government has failed to fully implement freedom of assembly and association as outlined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which it is party.
The submission thus echoes recommendations made in the previous UPR round in 2013 and calls for legal reform in the areas of press freedom, freedom of expression and access to information. Additionally, the submission urges Burundi to refrain from blocking access to social media platforms and to repeal legislation on SIM card registration which violates privacy and freedom of expression.
Echoing the 2013 submission, there is also a call for private media establishments shut down by the government to be reopened. The submission also calls for the immediate release of journalists who are in detention and an end to the harassment and persecution of journalists and human rights defenders. This is in the wake of the 2016 indefinite suspension of operating permits of five civil society organisations and five media organisations, including the Burundi Union of Journalists. Additionally, the submission calls for an independent body to regulate the communications sector, in accordance with international and regional freedom of expression standards.
The report calls for the enactment of a right to information law so as to enhance transparency and accountability in governance.
Read the full submission here.

Safeguarding Civil Society: Assessing Internet Freedom and the Digital Resilience of Civil Society in East Africa

By Small Media |
Over the past decade, East Africa has seen a tremendous boom in connectivity and online participation that is beginning to transform the way that citizens across the region communicate, express themselves, and establish communities. In a similar manner, the growth of internet access in the region is beginning to empower civil society organisations (CSOs) to engage with the public, share information, and advocate for citizens’ rights in sometimes challenging and closed political environments. Although the internet offers opportunities to advocates, it also offers the possibility for regional state and non-state actors to interfere with their work, surveil them, and censor their voices.
In this report Small Media, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), DefendDefenders, and Strathmore University’s Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law have sought to map out the state of internet freedom in East Africa, and assess the extent to which ongoing challenges have impacted negatively upon the work of civil society actors in the region. Although we were not able to map out the state of internet freedom across the entire region, we were able to focus our efforts on some of the lesser-studied digital landscapes – Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
To measure the state of internet controls in the region, we have taken the African Declaration of Internet Rights and Freedoms (ADIRF) as our key point of reference. This declaration – drafted and signed by a large array of African civil society organisations in collaboration with global internet freedom organisations – establishes a set of rigorous principles by which governments and other stakeholders must abide in order to guarantee the online rights and freedoms of citizens across Africa.
Over the course of this research, we have found that there is an urgent need for East African civil society to be given support to improve their digital resilience in the face of growing threats of surveillance and censorship across the region. In all of the countries surveyed in this report, CSOs failed to demonstrate a baseline of digital security knowledge, or else failed to implement practices effectively.
DigRes_1 DigRes_2
At the same time, we found that governments across the region require support to bring their policies into compliance with the principles of the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms – a set of principles developed by African internet freedom stakeholders to guarantee a free and open internet in Africa.
Small Media, CIPESA, Defend Defenders and CIPIT hope that this research can help to support the security of civil society actors, empower activists to support the principles of the African Declaration, and press their governments to adopt it.
Read the full report here.

Supercharging Human Rights Defenders // East Africa

By Small Media |
Building off the success of our 2016 report ‘Supercharging Human Rights Advocates in the Levant’, the Small Media team is excited to announce our latest project in a whole new region. Making use of the practices we’ve developed in our work across the Middle East, Small Media is setting out to survey the cybersecurity landscape in East Africa. Over the course of this project, we aim assess the state of internet controls in the region, and support the development of a regional community of internet freedom researchers, digital security experts, and human rights defenders.
Over recent years, regional civil society organisations and human rights defenders have been confronted with significant security challenges as internet freedom is threatened across East Africa. The Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), one of our local partners for this project, have highlighted various issues involving undue prosecution of Internet users in East Africa in their 2016 State of Internet Freedom in Africa report. In Tanzania this has involved users being targeted and arrested for offenses including ‘insulting the president’ and news sites being shut down. Netizens in Uganda faced blocked social media and mobile money services in the build up to the February 2016 elections, alongside crackdowns on ‘offensive communications’, in the form of bans on social media accounts that criticise the government. Burundian social media users have seen platforms including Viber, Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook shut down during public protests against government figures. In addition to this, Rwandan citizens face among the world’s worst restrictions on freedom of speech and political activity, including stringent online censorship targeted at those discussing ‘sensitive’ topics.
Freedom House’s 2016 Freedom on the Net report highlights the challenges faced in Rwanda and Uganda, but there are a number of gaps in regional knowledge that we aim to fill. With levels of access to the Internet growing steadily in the region, and some concerning indications of a ramping-up of state efforts to crackdown on internet freedom, it is important that the digital security needs of CSOs and netizens are addressed in an urgent manner.
Thus, focusing on Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania, our research seeks to fill the gap that exists by identifying the digital security threats facing CSOs in the East Africa region, recommending a plan of action and then developing the capacity of CSOs to respond to the threats that they face.
Our Project
The first phase of this project involved working with two of our local partners, CIPESA and DefendDefenders, to select high-quality workshop participants and trainers, in order to create and train a secure, strong and enthusiastic community of regional, on-the-ground digital security experts and researchers. The training given at the workshop has equipped local actors to engage in comprehensive and long-term digital security research, thereby supporting the future needs of CSOs across the region.
Building on the successful outcome of the workshop, our local researchers – working alongside our regional partners – are now hard at work carrying out the core components of the research project, including:

  1. Legal and Policy Analysis – to assess the current legislative frameworks that exist within East African states, and to establish what powers governments have to monitor and prohibit online communications.
  2. Network Measurements – to assess the internet infrastructure in each of the target countries. Our researchers are using OONI Probe and ICLab’s Centinel software to establish the level of censorship taking place, and highlight any network vulnerabilities to state-directed internet shutdowns.
  3. CSO Cyber Capacity Assessments – interviews are being undertaken with a number of CSOs to identify the most urgent digital security threats they face, and to measure their defences.

With the training workshop completed, Small Media and our local partners are currently working with an enthusiastic team of local researchers to carry out the on-the-ground research components. We’ll be busily compiling our research findings over the next couple of months, but we look forward to presenting you with our findings and recommendations upon the report’s publication in March 2017. Stay tuned!
This article was sourced from the Small Media website.