A garbage truck dumped the 11,000 envelopes in the street outside the embassy at 10 a.m. as activists chanted: “Where is Jean Bigirimana?” After hesitating, an embassy representative came out and took the 250 pages of signatures collected by RSF.
“We call on Burundi to open an official investigation to determine exactly what happened to Jean Bigirimana,” said Cléa Kahn-Sriber, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “Is he being held by the intelligence services? Was he killed? Not knowing has become a living hell for his family and colleagues.
“Burundi withdrew from the International Criminal Court in mid-October and has said UN investigators are not welcome in the country. If the government disputes the international community’s legitimacy on justice and human rights issues, why doesn’t it investigate Bigirimana’s disappearance itself?
“There is no disputing the fact that Bigirimana disappeared and that the bodies of two people who had died violently were found near the last place he was seen. So why this deafening silence? If the government has nothing to hide, why doesn’t it do everything possible to find out who is responsible for his disappearance?”
After getting a phone call from a source, Bigirimana went to meet the source in Muramvya, a small town 50 km east of Bujumbura, on 22 July. Witnesses reported seeing him there with members of the National Intelligence Service (SNR). It was the last time he was seen.
The authorities initially said they were holding Bigirimana but then retracted and thereafter said nothing. In response to their silence, Bigirimana’s colleagues at Iwacu began looking for him. A few days later, members of the police and emergency services joined the search.
At the start of August, two bodies were found in a river downstream from Muramvya but their condition was such that identification was difficult. One of the bodies was headless. Bigirimana’s wife thought that neither of them was her husband but could not be sure. Nonetheless, no autopsies or DNA analyses were carried out.
For about three weeks, Bigirimana’s wife received calls from people identifying themselves as judges or SNR intermediaries who told her not to worry and to be patient. Was this just cruelty or was he still alive? One hundred days later there is still no answer to the question of what happened to this journalist.
Tension is mounting steadily in Burundi as a result of a political crisis that began in the spring of 2015, and a UN report published last month spoke of a risk of genocide. Meanwhile, almost no independent media outlets are now operating inside the country.
The clampdown began when Radio Publique Africaine, a very popular privately-owned radio station, was suspended in April 2015. All other privately-owned radio stations were closed down the following month on the official grounds that they had to be investigated. The investigation was never concluded and may never have started.
Since then, only two radio stations have been allowed to reopen – in March of this year. One is Radio Rema, a government mouthpiece. The other is Radio Isanganiro, whose manager Anne Niyuhire was fired for allowing a tame version of the station to resume operating. She had fled abroad in 2015 was still there when dismissed.
Although Radio Isanganiro’s managers and editors have taken many precautions, they have repeatedly been summoned to the president’s office for questioning about their reports. The news editor was fired earlier this month.
The journalists still working in Burundi are constantly subjected to threats and intimidation and there is no sign of any let-up in the harassment.
In one recent case, a policeman beat up Infos Grands Lacs reporter Nestor Ndayitwayeko in a bar just because he was a journalist. Boaz Ntaconayigize, a Bonesha FM journalist living in exile in Kampala, was stabbed on 1 August by persons he identified as Burundian intelligence agents. Buja FM journalist Gisa Steve Ira-Koze was arrested in a bar in Gatumba, 10 km west of Bujumbura, on 18 August and was held for several days.
Voice of America journalist Fidélité Ishatse was arrested during a reporting visit to the southeastern town of Rutana on 7 October and was held for several hours on the grounds that she had not shown her accreditation to the local authorities on arrival, although she often does reporting in the region.
These examples are all indicative of the extent to which freedom of information is almost non-existent now in Burundi, which fell 11 places in the past year in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index and is now ranked 156th out of 180 countries. This small central African country was often cited as a regional example of media freedom and pluralism until President Pierre Nkurunziza triggered the crisis in 2015 by deciding to hold on to power and run for a third term.
For more cases of media freedom violations in Burundi, click here.