Seven-year-old fight for truth and justice for reporter who disappeared in Burundi
Seven years after a news website reporter disappeared in Burundi on 22 July 2016, his family and colleagues continue to demand truth and justice. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the country’s current administration to end its silence about this case, in which officials in the previous administration could have been involved.
On 22 July 2016, Jean Bigirimana was looking forward to being reunited with his wife and children at the end of that day’s work but he never saw them again. Seven years later, the circumstances of his disappearance and the identity of those responsible are still unknown. For his loved-ones and colleagues, the search for justice has been long but their determination has not flagged. Despite a change of government in 2020, the authorities have so far shown no interest in shedding light on the case.
RSF reiterates its support for the demand by family and colleagues for justice for Jean Bigirimana, a journalist who disappeared in unclear circumstances seven years ago. A real, independent investigation, as RSF has sought in a petition since 2016, is needed in order to finally establish who was responsible. President Évariste Ndayishimiye’s administration should address this need instead of continuing to say nothing about the case. The media landscape must regain its pluralism, diversity and freedom, and the quest for truth and justice in the disappearance of a reporter for Iwacu, one of Burundi’s most widely read independent media outlets, is a condition of this.
Aged 37 and based in the capital, Bujumbura, Bigirimana was working for Iwacu, the country’s most widely read independent news website. On 22 July 2016, he went to Muramvya, a small town 50 km east of Bujumbura, to meet a source. That is where he was seen for the last time.
His widow, Godeberthe Hakizimana, reports that, according to several witnesses, “he was bundled into a pickup with tinted windows by national intelligence agents.” Two corpses in a very deteriorated condition were recovered from a nearby river a few days later. The police denied that either was Bigirimana’s. But Hakizimana recalls her “very strong emotion” when they finally asked her to come to the morgue to examine them to see whether she could identify either as her husband’s. She was unable because of their condition.
A complaint against persons unknown was filed by Iwacu and the family along with a request for DNA tests on the two unidentifiable bodies. The authorities never acceded to this request. Pierre Nkurunziza, who died in office in 2020, was president at the time – an era marked by countless press freedom violations carried out with complete impunity.
After her husband’s disappearance, Hakizimana began being subjected to anonymous threats and intimidatory messages. In June 2017, she fled with her two children, now aged 15 and 10, to neighbouring Rwanda, where she remains. From there, she reiterates her request for justice and to be able to carry out a “dignified burial” for her husband.
Arlette Munezero, the spokesperson for Burundi’s prosecutor general, said in 2021 that Bigirimana’s disappearance was still an open case and that investigations were under way. The interior and public security ministry’s spokesman meanwhile accused Iwacu of “not wanting to cooperate in the investigation.” This is denied by Iwacu founder and editor Antoine Kaburahe, who points that the complaint filed by Iwacu was dismissed.
“No one has ever been questioned or arrested, neither perpetrators nor instigators,” Kaburahe said. “They took his life, but they will never get our silence. We will be there to perpetuate the Jean Bigirimana’s memory. His name will endure through time. His children will be proud to bear the name of an honest journalist, a father, who was killed for no reason.”
Kaburahe was himself also forced to flee abroad because the authorities subjected Iwacu to constant harassment. Four of its journalists were arrested on a reporting trip to the northwest of the country in 2019 and were sentenced to 30 months in prison.
Access to the Iwacu website from within Burundi was blocked for five years from 2017. Iwacu was able to circumvent the censorship thanks to the creation of several mirror sites by RSF as part of its Operation Collateral Freedom. Burundi’s new government finally lifted the blocking in 2022.