Will Burundi's new government lift restrictions on its once-lively press?

The Press House in Bujumbura. Photo by Flickr user DW Akademie — Africa. CC BY-NC 2.0

Amid renewed talks with the European Union, the Burundi government has recently made moves to resolve disputes with various media that have been restricted since the 2015 political crisis — giving some cautious optimism for the independent press.

In 2015, then-president Pierre Nkurunziza controversially took a third term which many saw as unconstitutional, sparking large protests and even a failed putsch on May 13. In the fallout, hundreds were killed and several hundred thousand fled as refugees. Media outlets were attacked in the upheaval too, with most forced to shut down, and an exodus of media workers followed in the face of — even fatal — violence.

While the most volatile period passed, the crisis left a shrunk media, meaning that authorities’ narratives face little contradiction today. Reduced access to radio in a country where internet access is low also increased the influence of rumours, even disinformation in recent years.

Before 2015, Burundi’s independent media was considered lively, a post-conflict success. But in RSF’s World Press Freedom ranking, Burundi fell from 142 in 2014 to 160 in 2020.

But the country might be set for a change. Elected last year, President Évariste Ndayishimiye has been seeking to improve diplomatic relations — notably with the European Union (EU), which had imposed aid suspensions and sanctions on government figures over rights violations since 2015.

Revamping Burundi's press seems to be among the new president's priorities as it seeks to restore its international reputation.

In December, four journalists from Iwacu newspaper, one of the few outlets that have remained active since 2015, were pardoned and released from jail. They were arbitrarily detained in 2019 while reporting on an armed group.

And in January, the president called the National Council of Communications (CNC), the media regulator, to resolve disagreements with various outlets.

major outcome of a subsequent meeting this month was a commitment by the CNC to work on unblocking the website of Iwacu, one of the few newspapers that have remained active after the crisis.

Iwacu has been blocked in Burundi without explanation from internet providers or authorities since October 2017, while being accessible internationally. Netblocks confirmed last year that the site was blocked in Burundi by all providers, noting that such coordination indicated it came from an order.

At the meeting, the CNC also pledged to reverse a 2018 decision obligating Iwacu to close its comments section.

Radio Bonesha’s director Léon Masengo also said he was pleased with the government's gesture, but lamented the tough financial situation they face after this long period of inactivity. He added that the radio's equipment had been destroyed in 2015 and called for financial help.

RSF also welcomed the president’s move and called for the dialogue to continue, as well as for journalists in exile to be able to return safely.

Media restricted since 2015

During the 2015 turmoil, and the government’s heavy response, several Burundian radios — the media reaching the most people — were attacked.

Rema FM, seen as close to the government, was reportedly attacked by coup supporters, while independents Isanganiro, Radio Bonesha FM, Radio-Télé Renaissance, and Radio Publique Africaine were attacked by government agents, and left unable to operate.

The last three have not broadcast since, while Isanganiro and Rema reopened sometime after. State-run RTNB and independent Iwacu newspaper continued, while others turned to social media and “underground” reporting, such as SOS Médias Burundi, Inzamba radio, and Yaga-blog. In May 2018, BBC and Voice Of America were also suspended.

CNC president Nestor Bankumukunzi stated that the February 1 meeting was an initial contact to be followed up, while adding that the matter of journalists in exile is not for the CNC to resolve.

Diplomatic opening 

The EU's suspension of direct aid to the government caused significant financial difficulties, and some Burundian officials have accused the EU of supporting putschists. 

For its part, the EU lost influence in Burundi, while others, notably Russia and China, maintained closer links. With international pressure and criticism divided and ineffective since 2015, the EU and Burundi’s new government appear motivated to renew ties.

While the step forward is significant, Iwacu highlighted that while Burundian authorities hope for rapid change, EU representatives seem to be looking at a gradual rapprochement. 

A letter signed earlier this month by 43 Members of the European Parliament calls for the lifting of sanctions to be based on concrete changes, including opening media and releasing journalists and human rights defenders — such as Germain Rukuki, arrested in 2017 and convicted to 32 years in prison on charges of “rebellion” and “threatening state security.”

Burundi: European parliamentarians state their conditions for lifting sanctions against Burundi. Reopening medias RPA, Renaissance, and Bonesha FM . They also call for the opening of closed organizations…

Journalist Bob Rugurika signaled support for dialogue with the EU but said more needs to change. He also shared a joint statement by heads of media that are still under sanctions:

Bob Rugurika: RPA, TeleRenaissance, and the Union Burundaise des Journalistes spoke on the President’s message. They are ready to put everything in place for the return of the rule of law to Burundi.

Despite such diplomatic successes, recent reports, including by the UN Commission Of Inquiry and the Burundi Human Rights Initiative, described ongoing abuses by security agents, closed political space, and worries that hardline figures were appointed to senior government positions.

Surprisingly, Burundi’s Supreme Court posted publicly on February 2 that 34 figures in exile had received — unannounced — heavy prison sentences seven months earlier, in June 2020. This was criticized as a “parody of justice” in a joint statement by civil society organizations released on the same day.

Beyond formal diplomacy, then, it remains to be seen how much change can be expected for media and other pressing issues.

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