Media independence under threat in Burundi after BBC pull-out

What with the BBC reporting yesterday that it is winding up operations in Burundi and the national radio and TV broadcaster RTNB now being run by a militia chief, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is extremely concerned about the fate of press freedom and pluralism in Burundi in the run-up to next year’s election.

How many independent media will be left when Burundi holds its presidential election in 2020?

Fourteen months after the Burundian authorities suspended the BBC’s popular local broadcasts in the national language and four months after they rescinded its operating licence, the BBC has finally decided to cease operations in Burundi and close its Bujumbura bureau, several of its journalists reported yestertoday.

The BBC failed to get the authorities to lift the sanctions, which were imposed on the grounds that it had endangered “national cohesion and reconciliation” and “breached professional ethics” by broadcasting a TV documentary accusing the Burundian security services of operating secret torture and detention sites with the aim of silencing dissent.

The definitive loss of what was once a key source news and information has come amid growing pressure on those journalists still in Burundi. It includes a presidential decree on 3 July appointing Eric Nshimirimana, the head if the ruling party’s youth wing, known as the Imbonerakure, as RTNB director-general.

The Imbonerakure is regarded as a “militia” by the United Nations and, like the regime itself, is being investigated by the International Criminal Court on suspicion of crimes against humanity. It was used in the crackdown launched in 2015 in response to the political crisis triggered by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term.

Nshimirimana’s last position was running a sugar company and he has no knowledge or experience of Burundi’s media.

“The BBC’s departure and the appointment of a militia chief to run the national radio and TV broadcaster – a person accused (along with his militia) of the most terrible atrocities – confirm an extremely disturbing absence of press freedom a year before the presidential election,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk.“Independent media were already barely able to operate in Burundi. Now their very survival is threatened by a regime bent on having an obedient press and a public debate with no dissenting voices.”

Independent media under attack

The regime’s warnings and sanctions have targeted other international radio broadcasters as well. Voice of Americawas, like the BBC, subjected to a six-month suspension last year that was extended indefinitely in a completely arbitrary manner in March.

Last month, the National Communication Council (CNC) threatened Radio France Internationale (RFI) with sanctions over an interview with a human rights activist that was deemed to have defamed Burundi.

And last week, the CNC accused the independent weekly newspaper Iwacu of “bias and defamation.” An Iwacu journalist, Jean Bigirimana, has meanwhile been missing ever since 22 July 2016 when, according to several witnesses, he was abducted by Burundian intelligence agents. With just days to go to the third anniversary of his abduction, the investigation into his disappearance is completely stalled and the authorities have yet to issue any statement on the subject.

Burundi is ranked 159th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index .