Reporters Without Borders takes note of the Burundian government’s decision to allow two radio stations to resume news broadcasting after nine months of forced silence but is concerned that that their directors have had to sign an undertaking to be “balanced and objective” and not threaten the country’s “security.”
The National Council for Communication held a press conference on 19 February to announce the decision to let Rema FM (close to the government) and Radio Isanganiro resume operating. They were among a total of five radio stations that had been banned from operating since an failed coup on 14 May 2015.
Rema FM had been allowed to resume broadcasting music since November but Radio Isanganiro had remained closed and under seal until the announcement. Signing the undertaking was a condition for their being allowed to resume news broadcasts.
The announcement came three days before a visit to Burundi by United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon.
“This sudden measure by the Burundian government was probably intended as a conciliatory signal to the international community, above all in the run-up to the UN secretary-general’s visit to Bujumbura,” said Cléa Kahn-Sriber, the head of RSF’s Africa desk.
“But it is not enough because the authorities continue to act in a completely arbitrary manner. Since May 2015, they maintained the ban on the radio stations on the grounds that a judicial investigation was under way. Has the investigation into Radio Isanganiro been completed? If so, what were its findings? And why are the other privately-owned radio stations not being allowed to reopen?"
“Furthermore, this ‘undertaking” imposing constraints on Radio Isanganiro clearly violates its journalistic freedom and keeps it under the government’s thumb. If the authorities are sincere about their desire to restore human rights in Burundi they must allow all the closed media outlets to reopen and they must provide satisfactory safety guarantees for the return of the journalists who fled abroad.”
The government also announced on 19 February that it was rescinding “international arrest warrants” for 15 prominent people who have fled the country. They include Antoine Kaburahe, the editor of the privately-owned weekly Iwaçu, the only independent media outlet to continue operating after the radio stations were closed. Kaburahe is currently in Brussels.
However, a Burundian legal analyst said this announcement was meaningless because no such “international arrest warrants” were ever issued. What the government issued was extradition requests based on national arrest warrants. So the announcement offers no guarantees to the concerned persons in the event of their return.
Furthermore, the announcement did not include six other journalists, including Radio Isanganiro director Anne Niyuhire, who are also the subject of extradition requests, thereby reinforcing the contradictory nature of the message it sends to Burundi’s journalists.
Burundi is ranked 145th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. The arbitrary closure of news media and persecution of journalists since the start of the political crisis that erupted in 2015 means that Burundi is unlikely to hold this position in the 2016 press freedom index.