The long-stewing political crisis in Burundi is a dangerous one, and it's affecting freedom of expression in the East African country. Independent media are especially under threat, though anyone daring to report on the situation from a non-government-sanctioned perspective face censorship, intimidation and physical violence.
The country's trouble began when President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for a third term, sparking protests and citizen campaigns concentrated in the capital Bujumbura. Participants argued his candidacy undermined the Arusha Accords and constitution that helped end the civil war that tore apart the country from 1993 to 2005. Witnesses, victims, local activists and human rights organizations have all documented cases of arbitrary detention, systematic torture, and killings of opponents, though government officials deny this.
A coup failed to take power away from Nkurunziza in May 2015, and ‘forced’ July elections saw him and his CNDD-FDD party sweep once again to victory. Nkurunziza’s inaugural speech warned civil society against political interference, accompanied by worrying online messages such as the one below from the president's Twitter account:
No one living abroad should consider himself superior to those who stayed in #Burundi, since most of them have left their families here.
— Pierre Nkurunziza (@pnkurunziza) 24 Octobre 2015
Meanwhile, demonstrations faded into armed attacks and reprisals, and increasingly organized armed groups announced anti-third-term rebellions. Political opposition is scattered, and many groups have been forced to leave. Volatile divisions across government, military, and police have deepened, and intensified hardliner pressure has pushed dissenters into exile or silence.
The UN registered at least 439 dead and 237,000 refugees by January, while insecurity and sanctions have worsened economic hardship, undermining post-war transition.
Lockdowns of ‘rebellious’ Bujumburan neighbourhoods with ‘special’ police units, unidentified gunfire, gender-violence, deadly police-raids, disappearances, corpses discovered outside, and roaming armed groups have become routine. Trust has evaporated, and many fear even going out.
Throughout, reporters persevered, but the crisis is seriously threatening independent media.
Attacks on independent media through the #BurundiCrisis
Media access in Burundi varies, with radio dominating especially for the rural majority. Radio access in 2010 was almost 90%, and so closing trusted radios restricts reliable information and can fuel disinformation and fear, even pushing refugees to flee.
Literacy and infrastructure limit other media, although cellphones, many radio-enabled, now reach several million. Internet usage has also grown significantly, with user numbers at 500,000 in 2013, around 5% of the 2012 population (9,850,000).
The country's once lively media landscape has taken a severe blow from 2013 legislation followed by the militarized response to third-term opposition, particularly outside Bujumbura. Burundian and international journalists have faced accusations of anti-government bias or encouraging insurrection as well as become the target of violence.
Independent broadcasters Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), Bonesha, and Isanganiro were blocked on 26 April from broadcasting outside Bujumbura. Then, during the putsch’s chaos, radios’ offices were attacked, effectively imposing an indefinite independent radio-blackout. While ministers blamed coup participants, eyewitnesses described security agents.
Similarly, anti-third-term militants attacked pro-government Rema TV’s offices. However, Rema is officially authorized to operate, while the prosecutor-general blocked the others’ access to shared-offices for “ongoing investigations”. Smaller stations also suffered, including Gitega-based Humuriza. Citizens have thus had limited and partial news since before elections, struggling to access non-government coverage.
In June, a Voice of America correspondent was the target of a grenade attack, though no one was injured. And in early 2016, the names of seven journalists – including the four main independent radios’ directors — were included on a list of people the government seeks to have extradited in connection to the May coup.
Forced into exile
Considered “enemies” or “munwa muremure” (“big-mouth”), many journalists have fled. Some wrote to Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon from Kigali, criticizing violence and elections without free media.
Interviewed from exile in July by Iwacu, RPA’s Bob Rugurika lamented the rapid deterioration in press freedom following the protests and coup:
Depuis 2013 […] nous avions dénoncé un plan d’attaque et de fermeture des médias, surtout privés […] Seulement, […] on ne pouvait jamais imaginer que le pouvoir ait alimenté un plan de destruction totale des médias, et surtout d’interdiction formelle de fonctionner à tous les médias indépendants privés.
Since 2013 […] we had denounced a plan of attacking and closing the media, especially privately-owned outlets […]. Only, […] we could never have imagined that the government had developed a plan for the total destruction of the media, and especially for a formal ban on all private independent media operating.
Despite the hostility, Iwacu's director Antoine Kaburahe remained motivated to safeguard the outlet’s “small window of liberty” but, in November, he was also effectively exiled.
As Reporters Without Borders’ Cléa Kahn-Sriber noted, the uninvestigated torture of well-known journalist Esdras Ndikumana indicates even worse risks for less-connected reporters. Not even state-run and heavily government-controlled Radio-Télévision Nationale du Burundi (RTNB) staff are immune; in October cameraman Christophe Nkezabahizi was among those killed, officially by crossfire, but eyewitnesses accuse repressive police raids.
Remaining rights activists face similar dangers. The Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons’s Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, critical of resurgent torture, was shot in August, and even after reaching Belgium, family members were murdered.
The independence and diversity of Burundi's media is at stake
Journalists have successfully reported sensitive stories, from torture testimonies to alleged “parallel-police” directing repression. Nevertheless, media restrictions and witnesses’ fear of reprisals have significantly strengthened impunity for politicized violence.
Burundi’s lively, independent media was a valued post-war success, shown by journalists and audiences’ tenacity during this crisis. However, radio silence deprives many without Internet-access of reliable information. Renaissance’s Innocent Muhozi vocalized fears of returning to one-party government dominating media, and free journalism now needs security services’ demilitarization and civilian disarmament, especially of militia-like Imbonerakure and insurgents.
Achieving this via representative dialogue requires concerted diplomatic pressure – so far disunited and unprepared – given the minimal trust and political will and obstacles to intervention. International political and resource support for independent media is therefore indispensable as part of crisis-resolution, to combat impunity, reassure civilians with trusted information, reopen political space, and allow all citizens to discuss their future.