Independent press locked out of Burundi’s presidential election

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the blackout on independent news reporting that will inevitably sully the credibility of today’s presidential election in Burundi, where social media have been disconnected since polls opened this morning.

There is no point searching for news about Burundi’s election on Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp as they have all been cut off since the morning. The data gathered by NetBlocks and confirmed by RSF leave no doubt as to the existence of a targeted Internet cut despite the denial posted by Ambassador Willy Nyamitwe, an adviser to President Pierre Nkurunziza, who dismissed the reports as a “rumour.”


Today’s digital blackout underscores the already extremely oppressive media freedom environment in Burundi. Four journalists who work for the news website Iwacu, one of the few remaining independent media outlets, are currently awaiting the outcome of their appeal against the 30-month prison sentences they received in January for “attempted complicity in a violation of internal state security” because they tried to cover an incursion by a group of rebels based in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. Other Iwacu journalists were subjected to threats and intimidation during the election campaign. A ruling party parliamentarian threatened to kill them, the president’s spokesman referred to them as a “virus” and, like several other journalists, they were barred from a press conference about the coronavirus situation in Burundi.


“The freedom to inform has already been badly trampled on by the Burundian authorities in recent years and now it has been completely locked out of this presidential election,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk.“The independent news blackout we are seeing today is the final seal on a constant predatory policy towards the media with disastrous consequences for Burundian society. This election is being held behind closed doors, without social media, without most international media and with Burundian journalists under intense pressure. The polling stations have not yet closed but this election’s credibility is already badly marred because there is no free press to cover it.”


According to the electoral commission’s timetable, the election’s provisional results will be published by 26 May at the latest.


Press freedom has been badly threatened in Burundi ever since the crisis that was triggered in 2015 by President Nkurunziza’s desire to run for a third term, which he won. Radio stations were torched, dozens of journalists fled the country (and have remained in self-imposed exile), two popular international radio stations (VOA and BBC) are indefinitely banned from broadcasting in Burundi, and the journalists who are still there are subjected to constant threats and harassment.


An Iwacu reporter, Jean Bigirimana, disappeared nearly four years ago and remains missing without a serious investigation ever being carried out by the authorities to find out what happened to him.


Burundi is ranked 160th out of 180 countries and territories in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.


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Updated on 20.05.2020