In recent weeks, the government has been tightening its grip on the media outlets and journalists that are still operating in Burundi despite the ongoing situation of virtual civil war.
With the leading privately-owned news radio stations still closed since 14 May, the government has now turned its sights on Iwacu, a privately-owned weekly that is regarded as moderate and professional and is the only independent newspaper to have kept publishing throughout the turmoil.
Iwacu has been the target of virulent attacks by presidential media adviser Willy Nyamitwe, an official who has assumed an increasingly important and radical role on the Burundian political stage in recent months.
In a Facebook post on 2 September in response to an interview he disliked, Nyamitwe described Iwacu’s journalists as “tricksters” and “swindlers” – charges that have not been taken lightly by Iwacu editor Antoine Kaburahe because of the chaos still prevailing in Burundi.
In a reply on Iwacu’s website, Kaburahe accused Nyamitwe of “trying to prepare public opinion in advance in order to justify a future action,” and pointed out that his newspaper, like any responsible media outlet, had a duty to question what the authorities do.
“Instead of trying to butter up the government, Iwacu does what it is supposed to do, playing a role guaranteed by the constitution,” Kaburahe wrote. “The president still talks about ‘democracy’ so our work should not get his media adviser’s back up. Democracy means a wide range of media outlets. Conflicting opinions are a sign of good democratic health.”
Kaburahe’s analysis is clearly not shared by the Burundian authorities, who have been intensifying their crackdown on journalists with both national and international media outlets.
“We continue to pay close attention to the tragic events in Burundi, where NGOs and the United Nations are documenting the violence that the authorities are deploying against journalists,” said Clea Kahn-Sriber, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Africa desk.
“It is illusory to imagine that you can forcibly control the media with complete impunity. Those responsible will one day be called to account. Now that the necessary institutions have been established, normality must be restored and the spiral of violence must end. This is the duty of a democratic government, which is how the Burundian government likes to consider itself.”
Jean-Claude Ciza, a journalist who used to work for RTNB and now works with Radio France Internationale and Belgian broadcaster RTBF, was savagely beaten with a steel bar in Bujumbura on 4 September by Désiré Uwamahoro, a police officer named in UN reports as one of Burundi’s leading human rights violators.
At the moment of the attack, Ciza was speaking by telephone with RTBF’s Burundi correspondent, for whom he had been providing a report on the situation in the Bujumbura district of Musaga.
Ciza said Uwamahoro asked him to reveal the location of journalists working for Radio Isanganiro, Bonesha and Radio-Télé Renaissance and the location of RFI correspondent Esdras Ndkikumana.
“There were lots of you around during the demonstrations but now you are all alone in the field so here is your lesson in how to behave,” Uwamahoro said as he began to hit him. At no point did the stunned Ciza try to flee, not even when Uwamahoro stepped back for a moment because another intelligence officer told him he had been ordered to shoot Ciza if he tried to run away.
Jimmy Elvis Vyizigiro – a journalist working for the France 24 programme “Les Observateurs” and for Benevolenjia, a Dutch NGO that produces radio content promoting reconciliation – was attacked in his home on 27 August by four masked intruders who pinned him to the ground and beat him as they searched for the documents he had collected for a report about technical flaws in the electoral process.
“We know you are a journalist – give us what you are doing on the elections,” his assailants said, burning his arms when he refused to cooperate. They finally left, taking documents and his audio recorder, camera and computer. Vyizigiro described how he was tortured in a video interview for Iwacu. Since then, he had been in hiding.
RFI and AFP correspondent Esdras Ndikumana was arrested and then badly beaten on 2 August. Several sources say it was Désiré Uwamahoro (the previously named police officer) who ordered his arrest.
More than a month later, this act of violence remains unpunished even though, in a statement posted on Twitter, the president’s office said it wanted to “urgently determine the circumstances of these acts worthy of a bygone age so that those responsible can be prosecuted and punished according to the law.”
No suspect has ever been arrested although the beating took place in the presence of many witnesses at the headquarters of the National Intelligence Service.
Journalists who took the risk of remaining in Burundi or returning after having fled at the height of the violence have been the targets of judicial harassment and abusive legal proceedings by the authorities with the apparent sole aim of increasing the pressure on them.
They include Gérard Nibigira, RPA’s correspondent in the central city of Gitega, who was summoned by the local prosecutor’s office on 28 August and accused of insulting the president. When presented to the court, none of the witnesses confirmed the accusation.
The targets have also included Emmanuel Ndayishimiye, Bonesha FM’s correspondent in the northern province of Muramvya. His home was surrounded on the night of 24 August by about ten policemen who finally carried out a search of the house in the early hours.
The head of the National Intelligence Service, which ordered the search, said it received information that Ndayishimiye, who had returned from Kigali the day before, had arms in his home. Nothing was found.
Continuing media vacuum
The privately-owned radio stations closed by court order after the 13 May coup attempt have still not been able to resume operating, ostensibly because of two ongoing investigations, one into the damage they sustained and the other into the pro-coup messages allegedly broadcast by all of Bujumbura’s privately-owned news radio stations (Radio Isanganiro, Bonesha FM, RPA and Radio-Télé Renaissance) except pro-government Radio Rema.
In interview for the Infos Grands Lacs website, presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe said there was no guarantee that these radio stations would be able to reopen in the near future. As grounds, he cited the needs of an investigation, although it has made no visible progress since its launch nearly four months ago.
Radio-Télé Renaissance director Innocent Muhozi said he did not think the judicial authorities had the power to decide whether or not the radio stations would be allowed to resume operating.
In an interview for the website of Radio Isanganiro, he said: “We all know how these radio stations were closed (...) I think they were destroyed and closed by the security services and as long as these security services continue to have a bigger say than the legitimate political entities (...) we will have a problem.”
The prolonged closures are having a big financial impact on these radio stations. The manager of one of the closed stations said that, if a solution was not found soon, the staff would have to be laid off temporarily. Some of the stations continue to post content on their websites, but this is not seen by most the public in Burundi, where the Internet penetration rate is still low.
This grim picture contrasts with the image that the government is trying to protect. A new government PR campaign is spotlighting the 15 or so radio stations that continue to operate in Burundi. But they are all entertainment, religious or pro-government stations.
The Burundian government news agency has, for example, published a dispatch about a visit by the vice-president to Gitega-based Star FM, which was awarded a laptop for its election coverage. Other radio stations based in the provinces continue to operate but only reach a very local audience. They include Radio Umoco FM in Ngozi.
An international observer said these provincial pro-government radio stations not only now monopolize the airwaves but are also increasingly free to broadcast extremist messages with complete impunity because the National Council for Communication, which regulates the media, does not have the resources to monitor the provincial radio stations.
The level of media freedom in Burundi, once often cited as a regional example, has gradually declined since 2013, when an increase in restrictive laws and acts of intimidation against journalists began.
Ever since it was announced the President Pierre Nkurunziza would seek a third term, the authorities have been cracking down openly on the media and most of the country’s journalists have fled abroad. Those that stayed mostly live in hiding to avoid being located and arrested by the intelligence services.
The slim hopes raised by the appointment of a new cabinet in August soon evaporated and the few remaining observers in Bujumbura describe a state of virtual civil war with Kalashnikov gunfire and grenade explosions being heard every night and nocturnal arrests now the rule.
Several civil society representatives and politicians have been killed or have been the targets of assassination attempts.
Burundi is ranked 145th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
Prestation du gouvernement burundais, août 2015 ©Iwacu
Willy Nyamitwe ©Africatime.com