Though the new president, Evariste Ndayishimiye, has sent a few positive signals, the environment continues to be very hostile for journalists.
Burundi's media landscape was once regarded as one of the most dynamic in the Great Lakes region, but it has become much poorer since a failed coup attempt in 2015 and the ensuing crisis, in which several radio stations were destroyed or forced to relocate abroad, most moving to neighbouring Rwanda. Radio-Télé Isanganiro, Bonesha FM and the Iwacu press group are among the most popular independent media outlets. Radio Rema FM and the national radio and TV broadcaster RTNB also enjoy a large audience although they are dedicated to defending and promoting the government.
After President Pierre Nkurunziza’s death in 2020, his successor, Gen. Ndayishimiye, promised to normalise relations with the media but that promise has been slow to materialise. The CNDD-FDD, the ruling party since 2005, regards itself as the embodiment of the state and tolerates no dissent. The media are closely monitored to the point that, in some provinces, journalists must have a permit or be accompanied by a state media journalist to be able to cover certain subjects. The media are policed by the National Communication Council (CNC), whose members are appointed by the president and which is completely subservient to the government.
While Burundi’s constitution and press law guarantee freedom of expression, the existing legal framework provides no concrete protection for the freedom to report the news. It was only thanks to a presidential pardon that four Iwacu journalists were finally released in December 2020, 14 months after being arrested while on their way to cover a story in the northwest of the country.
Burundi is one of the world’s poorest countries and its advertising market is very limited. It is therefore very difficult for a media outlet to survive without support from the government or from international NGOs or other entities.
Thanks to the government’s methods, fear is deeply entrenched both in Burundian society as a whole and within media outlets, where self-censorship is the norm. When out reporting, journalists are often greeted by a "welcome committee," a group of people who have been selected by the authorities and who are not free to say what they think. The regime sees journalists as either patriots in need of training or enemies of the nation.
Burundian journalists live in fear of being threatened, attacked or arrested. The violence may come from the authorities or from ruling party activists, especially the very violent Imbonerakure youth militia, who resort to both beatings and extortion to harass and silence journalists. In 2021, the president delivered a public verbal attack on two Burundian journalists based abroad, accusing them of destroying the country. Those responsible for violence against journalists enjoy total impunity.