On the night of 13-14 May 2015, independent radio stations in Burundi were silenced with guns, rockets and grenades. As a result, dozens of journalists have fled the country. Today, three years later, what remains of freedom of expression and press in Burundi? Decryption.
By Landry Niyonzima
The political crisis in which Burundi is plunged since April 2015, makes the exercise of the freedom of press and expression is endangered in this country of more or less 11 million inhabitants.
It all starts in April 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza represents himself for a third term unconstitutional and illegitimate. The movement “Stop the 3rd mandate” is engaged. The population, civil society organizations, opposition political parties are taking to the streets to say no to the violation of the constitution and the Arusha agreement (2003) guaranteeing political and security stability in the country. Burundi.
The journalists are present, they do everything they can to inform the population. At the same time, Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), an independent radio station (the most listened to in Burundi) which had just spent more than 3 weeks closed by the government, had just revealed new accusations about the murder of the 3 Italian sisters in Kamenge . A series of reports on this triple murder has also earned several days of incarceration to Bob Rugurika director of the RPA, Muramvya .
On the civil society side, intimidation had given way to arbitrary imprisonment.
Subsequently, journalists and political opponents were arrested. All this cocktail prepared by the power of Bujumbura augured a new era in which the population would be deprived of information by muzzling the voices of the voiceless.
Journalists in the line of fire …
The height was reached when the independent media were destroyed on the night of 13-14 May 2015, after the abortive coup against Pierre Nkurunziza. This night was long. Around 18h the headquarters of Radio Television Rema FM, close to power, caught fire. He had just been ransacked by mutineers, according to one of the journalists of this station. A few hours later, the Loyalists lead the assault on media premises judged rightly or wrongly to have extended the microphone to the putschists and relayed their message. The APC (Radio Publique Africaine), Renaissance Radio and Television are set on fire. Bonesha FM, Isanganiro were destroyed by cannon fire.
If there is a difficult job today in Burundi it is certainly journalism. Apart from censorship by the CNC (National Communication Council, the regulatory body of the media), journalists face threats, intimidation, arrests, even disappearances (here I highlight the case of Jean Bigirimana of the newspaper Iwacu) . Journalists who have remained in the country now have two options: either to be quiet and to be the powerhouse of exile.
The exile of journalists and the establishment of new media
In the desire to always keep the population informed, the journalists who fled did not want to be quiet while Nkurunziza’s grinding machine was running. Despite the difficult conditions (life and work), journalists in exile have regrouped and have set up radios ( Inzamba and Humura ) that broadcast online.
Inzamba, Humura and TeleRenaissance , the small windows on Burundi, produce newspapers and broadcasts that are also shared on social networks and / or whatsapp groups.
This allows all Burundians even those inside the country to be able to follow the information that the national radio (now the propaganda tool of the ruling party) can not give.
In a Burundi where oral tradition still occupies a prominent place, radio occupies a preponderant place in society. After the destruction of the classic media, it is now the smartphone that has revolutionized the consumption of information via social networks (facebook, twitter, snapchat, Instagram …) and applications such as whatsapp, vibe, telegram …
While internet usage was 1.8% (Burundians?) In 2013 (according to the 2013 Living and Household Survey-ECVMB), the Demographic and Health Survey / DHS III 2016-2017 conducted by the ISTEEBU (Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies of Burundi) shows that the percentage is 9.1.
Of the 9.1% internet users, 4.5% use it regularly, 2.2% at least once a week, while 2.4% use it less than once a week .
According to the same survey in Burundi, 47% of households own a mobile phone (demographic and health survey / EDS III 2016-2017).
It will also highlight the part of SOS media Burundi , a social media that publishes information continuously on the whole territory, totaling more than 49 thousand followers on facebook and more than 33 thousand on twitter.
The reopening of the media and the new press law …
If some radios were able to reopen (Rema FM and Isanganiro) after their destruction, today the freedom of expression and press is banned. Even to express an opinion contrary to that of the authorities is seen as an opposition. For these two media quoted above, it was necessary to subscribe to an act of commitment preconceived by the CNC.
The new law on the press is even more liberticide according to media professionals. Promulgated on September 14, 2018, the new press law fell like a blow to the media world. The CNC has always claimed to be on the side of respect for the law and has always declared itself a guarantor of freedom of the press. Except that there is eel under the rock. Rather than being an independent body of management and exchange between media professionals, the CNC has become a kind of court where the “disturbing” media are judged.
Repetitive warnings have heightened self-censorship, followed by the closure of the media, which the Bujumbura regime accuses of being enemies of the nation. The comments section of the Iwacu site is closed, for 6 months, the BBC and Voice of America radio VOA have been banned from broadcasting on the national territory. Today we are stopped because of a simple comment in a group WhatsApp. Jean Claude Niyongere, Karuzi’s doctor, will not say the opposite. The spokespersons of state institutions do not even stop blocking the “annoying” followers on twitter.
Until then, the country that was exemplary in terms of freedom of the press and expression in the sub-region, sinks into barbarism, and silence falls on Burundi. Dozens of journalists have gone into exile.
Among the independent media that have continued to inform national and international opinion is the Iwacu newspaper. However, the head of this newspaper will also be prosecuted by the Burundian justice, and returned to his second country, Belgium.