July 29, 2015 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Any future for Burundi’s media after presidential election?

Burundi’s privately-owned radio stations are still silent although President Pierre Nkurunziza succeeded in forcing the country to hold an election giving him a third term. Reporters Without Borders calls for the rapid and unconditional reopening of the media and guarantees for the safe return of all journalists who fled abroad.

The election was held amid a news blackout imposed by Nkurunziza. Those who voted – between 40 and 80 percent of the electorate according to the state media, far fewer according to observers – did so amid news coverage that was biased and partial because the privately-owned broadcast media were not allowed to resume operating.

No progress in judicial investigation

The four leading privately-owned radio stations – Isanganiro FM, RPA, Bonesha FM and Radio-Télé Renaissance – continue to be closed on the official grounds that they are subject to an investigation into the acts of violence against them during an abortive coup on 14 May.

Officially, the aim of these closures is to protect evidence for the investigation launched by the public prosecutor the day after the violence. But, although under way for more than two months, the investigation has made no progress and no results have been announced.

“We call on the judicial authorities to speed up the investigation, if indeed it has begun, and to issue their findings as soon as possible,” said Cléa Kahn-Sriber, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Africa desk. “The government’s priority should be reopening the privately-owned media, which are essential to a political landscape that is a pluralist and democratic.”

Media under pressure

According to international observers, the election failed to meet the transparency requirements of a legitimate democratic process. The United Nations said it was not “free, credible and inclusive.” US secretary of state John Kerry said it was “deeply flawed.” European Union support for the election was withdrawn in April.

News media that tried, despite all the problems, to cover the election were subjected to pressure. A report on the French TV station France 24 – headlined “Low turnout, violence and criticism: Burundi’s presidential election fools no one” – was called “tendentious” by presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe.

France 24 changed the headline in response to the criticism even if it did not change the report’s content. A decision the station explains by referring to “tension that might indicate that the safety of our visiting reporters was compromised.” A visiting France 24 reporter already had to leave the country in haste in early June after his accreditation was suddenly withdrawn.

If such methods are used with international media, one can only imagine those used with the Burundian media that are still trying to work. They continue to be subjected to constant pressure that forces them to censor themselves and they try to operate with the utmost discretion.

Some, such as the privately-owned newspaper Iwacu, continue to gather information and post it online with a great deal of circumspection. Others have asked us not to mention their online activities in order not to draw attention to them. They are either concentrating on informing the diaspora or on gathering evidence and testimony about what happened in the weeks before the election, including the many cases of police violence.

Humuriza FM
, a community radio station based in the eastern city of Gitega that has been closed since May although it had not been the target of violence, was given permission to reopen by the public prosecutor a few days ago although no information was released about the judicial investigation.

The station has not however resumed broadcasting because the local authorities in Gitega are refusing to give their permission. It used to operate above all thanks to a partnership with the newspaper Iwacu, which covered the events leading up to the election without interruption. The authorities are now arbitrarily forbidding the continuation of this partnership.

The studio that is used jointly by the Burundian association of radio broadcasters was given permission by the public prosecutor to resume broadcasting in June, but the employees of all the privately-owned radio stations – except Radio Rema, which supports the government – are forbidden to use it.

The Burundian media’s resources are meanwhile getting weaker by the day. The dozens of journalists who have fled abroad are living in extremely precarious conditions. Those that have stayed no longer have any income. And the closed radio stations face the possibility of having to shut down for good, especially as international aid has been suspended since their closure.

Insufficient guarantees for a safe return

An Internet radio station called Inzamba was recently launched by Burundian journalists living in exile and is broadcasting two hours of news about Burundi every evening. But its journalists say it has been the target of cyber-attacks and a copycat site using its logo has been created for the purpose of disinformation.

While Inzamba may be good for Burundian news coverage, it is a source of concern for journalists still in Burundi, who fear they could be accused of feeding it with information.

The journalists who have left have no immediate plans to return because they don’t think their safety would be assured.

One of them said: “A policeman saw me take a photo while he was beating up a demonstrator during the unrest in May. He was looking for me so I fled. A few days later, my little brother was attacked by men armed with machetes who were looking for me. He is still hospitalized with serious head injuries. I cannot go back now.”

For more information on the situation of the media during the Burundi crisis, please follow this link.

Photo credit: Policeman voting (LANDRY NSHIMIYE / AFP)
Comptage des voix à Kamenge (CARL DE SOUZA / AFP)