September 7, 2021

Protecting Burundi’s Vulnerable Media

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President Évariste Ndayishimiye’s efforts to signal a more media-friendly environment do not amount to a clean break with Burundi’s recent history of media repression. The government should unconditionally lift all media bans, overturn convictions of exiled journalists, and overhaul laws that restrict the journalists’ work.

NAIROBI – Jean Bigirimana, a reporter with the independent Burundian news outlet Iwacu, promised to be back soon when he left his home around lunchtime on July 22, 2016, after receiving a call from a source in the country’s intelligence service. That was the last time his wife, Godeberthe Hakizimana, saw him.

For Iwacu chief editor Abbas Mbazumutimathe days that followed were “cold” and “inexplicable” as he led a team of reporters who – after a tepid response from the authorities – took matters into their own hands by searching for Bigirimana. Five years later, questions about Bigirimana’s fate linger.

The episode is emblematic of Burundi’s difficult environment for journalists, amid largely unfulfilled promises of reform by President Évariste Ndayishimiye. “The first thing you see when you open the Iwacu gate [in Bujumbura] is a big poster of Jean,” Mbazumutima, who recruited Bigirimana to Iwacu, told me. “It reminds you of many things. It reminds you that the work you are doing is a dangerous job, not an easy job.”

Bigirimana disappeared just over a year after an attempted military coup. During the 2015 political crisis, the government intensified a crackdown on the media, silencing Burundi’s once-vibrant independent press. Radio stations were attacked and burned, and at least 100 Burundian journalists fled into exile. Bigirimana’s disappearance capped the repression.

When Ndayishimiye took office in June 2020, he pledged to guarantee justice for all Burundian citizens and to respect freedom of opinion. These promises fit within a broader plan to end the country’s years-long diplomatic isolation.

Gestures intended to signal a more media-friendly environment duly followed. On Christmas Eve last year, Ndayishimiye pardoned and freed four Iwacu journalists detained since 2019, although they retain a criminal record. In January, he directed the country’s media regulator to consider lifting bans. One radio station, Bonesha, and a pro-government news site, Ikiriho, have since been allowed to resume operation. And in June, the regulator announced that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), banned from broadcasting in Burundi since 2018, could reapply for an operating license.

But these steps do not amount to a clean break with Burundi’s recent history. There is still no sign of a credible inquiry into Bigirimana’s disappearance. The government continues to make placatory claims of ongoing investigations, echoing the empty promises made five years ago. Bigirimana’s colleagues and his young family, who were forced into exile in 2017 after receiving threats, wait for justice but with little hope.

Media in Burundi continue to operate in a restrictive environment, with a 2018 press law criminalizing the publication of information deemed unbalanced. Ndayishimiye’s government has even doubled down on past violations. While the BBC was – at least in theory – welcomed back into the country, Voice of America, also banned in 2018, has said that the media regulator has tied its return to Burundi to “handing over” the VOA journalist Patrick Nduwimana, whom “authorities want to arrest.” VOA has rightly rejected this outrageous demand.

Nduwimana is one of seven exiled Burundian journalists who were convicted in June 2020 of complicity in the 2015 coup attempt and sentenced in absentia to life in prison. None had legal representation at the trial, and their convictions were not made public until February of this year. Some of the convicted journalists have told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that their efforts to get a copy of the judgment have been rebuffed.

In addition, a 2017 ban on Iwacu’s website remains in place, despite a February 2021 promise by the media regulator to lift it. When we asked the government about this, an official claimed that the ban had been lifted, but also asserted, strangely, that Iwacu must use its “ingenuity” to fix the problem.

Unsurprisingly, Burundian journalists who have spoken to CPJ, particularly those in exile, are skeptical about whether Ndayishimiye is truly committed to press freedom. The government’s failure to break with old repressive ways, and the lack of a credible investigation into Bigirimana’s disappearance, mean that the changes feel like piecemeal measures aimed at appeasing the international community, which is eager to rebuild bridges with Burundi.

Press freedom should be central to any international efforts to revive diplomatic relations with the country. The European Union, which recently lifted its 2016 suspension of direct financial assistance to Burundi, should now seek tough commitments to improve conditions for the media, hold the authorities to account, and not accept gestures as guarantees of real reform. Likewise, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, which monitors and publicly reports human-rights violations, remains essential in tracking the country’s progress in its still-fragile transition. The international community must support the renewal of the commission’s mandate, which expires in October.

journalists, and overhaul laws that restrict the media’s work.

At his inauguration, Ndayishimiye said he wanted to build Burundi on the foundations of good governance and human rights. An independent press is essential to achieving these aims. Burundian journalists must be allowed to work in an environment where they will not be prosecuted for pursuing a sensitive story, where they can trust the government to protect them, and where they do not have to operate in the shadow of Bigirimana’s unsolved disappearance.

Muthoki Mumo is Sub-Saharan Africa Representative at the Committee to Protect Journalists. She previously worked as a journalist with the Nation Media Group in Nairobi, writing for the Daily Nation and Business Daily.

The text has been adapted from Project Syndicate website

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