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How Burundi’s independent press lost its freedom

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The general and presidential elections of May 2020, followed by the death of President Pierre Nkurunziza, put the international media spotlight on Burundi. The country is now facing one of the darkest times in its history since the 2015 crisis.

The crisis that year began when Nkurunziza, who had been in office since 2005, announced he would run for a third term.

The move was dubbed unconstitutional and the announcement triggered protests that were stifled and eventually banned by the authorities. Despite the protests, Nkurunziza was re-elected in July in polls boycotted by the opposition.

Since then, freedom of the press in Burundi has deteriorated considerably in an atmosphere of tension and repression. Local media have been silenced by repeated attacks from the government and the state security apparatus.

The remaining independent voices face difficult conditions. There are restrictive controls on the press and journalists and a constant fear of reprisals from elements enjoying impunity.

The media in Burundi: a historical perspective

The Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement of 2000, also known as the Arusha Accords, added to the wave of hope that was brought on by the end of Burundi’s 12-year civil war.

The agreement was signed in August 2000 after protracted negotiations facilitated by former presidents Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Nelson Mandela of South Africa. The agreement was the beginning of a reconciliation process that also implied greater freedom of the press.

But since 2005, when Nkurunziza was elected under the National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy party, relations between the state and the media have become severely strained.

During the 2000s, private radio stations could oppose state oppression to an extent. They provided a platform for political opposition and civil society, and reported on embezzlement, corruption and human rights violations.

But as in past regimes, Burundian journalists faced huge difficulties when covering highly sensitive topics. Journalists were barred from covering rebel activities and issues relating to security and maintaining public order.

Mistrust between the government and the press deepened. Journalists experienced increasing threats, intimidation and imprisonment. In 2013, a highly controversial media law was passed which undermined the protection of sources, limited subjects on which journalists could report, and imposed new fines for media found in violation of the law.

The National Communication Council, which is supposed to regulate the sector, has been exploited by political authorities, and its independence has been severely compromised. In media circles, the council is perceived to be a government puppet.

Media blackout

Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term in office, in defiance of the country’s constitution, essentially created a media vacuum in Burundi. Private media coverage of protests against a potential third term immediately strained relations with political authorities; some radio stations were suspended and threats were made against journalists in the field.

The attempted military coup in May 2015 was a major turning point. Loyalist forces destroyed work and broadcasting equipment in newsrooms and burned down the headquarters of several media outlets. The forces accused them of pro-coup bias and broadcasting seditious messages. Private radio and television stations were heavily affected.

The attempted coup gave Nkurunziza and his supporters a pretext to lock down the already weakened political and media landscape. The independent media, seen as being on the side of the opposition, became an enemy of the government.

Léandre Sikuyavuga (left), editor in chief of the newspaper Iwacu; Antoine Kaburahe (centre), director of the Iwacu Media Group; and Innocent Muhozi (right), director of the Renaissance radio and television stations, give a press conference at the Iwacu offices in Bujumbura on 19 May 2015, following attacks on, and closures of four private radio stations. Jennifer Huxta/AFP

Exile became the only option for some members of the press. Dozens of independent journalists were forced to flee the heavy-handed repression.

The crackdown on independent radio left the field wide open to Burundi’s state broadcaster, which is the government’s mouthpiece. Even international journalists, who are usually granted a certain immunity, have suffered pressure and intimidation from the government security apparatus.

In the turmoil brought about by the crisis, it is worth mentioning the remarkable role played by IWACU. The independent newspaper remained in operation despite the dangerous conditions. Four of its journalists were imprisoned in 2019. They were accused of “collusion” with rebels operating on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Eventually, its director was forced into exile.

The online platform SOS Médias Burundi, coordinated by a social media collective, also stands out. It was formed at the time of the crisis and operates clandestinely.

Despite a few courageous voices who stood their ground, the 2015 crisis ushered in a climate of terror and deep mistrust between the government and the remaining independent media.

The pandemic blackout

The COVID-19 pandemic broke out in Burundi the day before the May 2020 elections. So that they could go ahead unhindered, the government adopted a strategy of denial, invoking the country’s “divine protection”.

The deportation of the World Health Organisation representative and his team of three experts was one of the most glaring indications of the restriction of information in Burundi. In spite of their refusal to officially acknowledge the pandemic, Burundian authorities still imposed quarantine on national and foreign travellers.

The lack of strict preventive action and social distancing in the country, and the underestimation of the scale of the infection, have been severely criticised.

Social and electoral gatherings continued with minimal, or no, health protection measures. This led some Burundian medical professionals and civil society members trying to warn the media and the public of the worsening health situation and the lack of testing.

In this context, the reporting surrounding the death of President Nkurunziza was of critical importance. According to a government press release, the “unexpected” death of the Burundian head of state, which took place in the Karuzi hospital on 8 June 2020, was caused by a “heart attack”.

Many international media outlets reported suspicions that the real cause of death was COVID-19, which would have made Nkurunziza the first leader to die from the virus in office.

The least that can be said is that there is no clear information surrounding government action on the pandemic and its consequences.

What now?

Since the May 2020 elections, the international community has moved towards normalizing relations with the new president, Évariste Ndayishimiye, awaiting signs of openness on his part.

Western diplomatic missions appear to be keeping a low profile, limiting themselves to a handful of policy statements. But can diplomacy return to normal if the media landscape does not? The crisis cannot truly be said to be over if there is still no real space for public debate through a free and independent press.

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