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Silence and short memories Burundi

by Alexandre Niyungeko

It came as no surprise when, on 17 August, Pierre Nkurunziza’s ruling party, the National Council for the Defence of Demoracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces pour la défense de la démocratie CNDD-FDD), refused to accept 228 United Nations (UN) police officers in Burundi. The UN Security Council had passed a resolution on 19 July on the progressive deployment of a security force in Burundi in an attempt to restore calm and the respect of human rights.

It was yet another demonstration of the authoritarian tendencies of a government that wants to rule alone without sharing, despite the chaos and terror that have reigned in Burundi since Nkurunziza decided in April 2016 to stand for a third mandate.

<p>Thousands of Burundians were forced into exile after Pierre Nkurunziza announced in April 2015 that he was standing for a third mandate. The photo shows Burundians demonstrating outside the United Nations in New York on 26 April 2016 to demand an end to human rights violations in Burundi.</p>

Thousands of Burundians were forced into exile after Pierre Nkurunziza announced in April 2015 that he was standing for a third mandate. The photo shows Burundians demonstrating outside the United Nations in New York on 26 April 2016 to demand an end to human rights violations in Burundi.

(AP/Bebeto Matthews)

Last month the government refused to participate in the opening session of the second round of negotiations on solving the Burundian crisis, held in Arusha, Tanzania. The ruling party was protesting in part at the presence of the leaders of the opposition, whom they heaped insults on.

Civil society leaders have also come into the government’s line of fire – after launching a peaceful protest movement – as well as the opposition leaders now in exile, opponents, journalists, and the heads of rebel movements, all facing arrest warrants on trumped up charges, issued by the Burundian justice system, under firm government control.

Memories are short! During the negotiation of the Arusha accords in 2000, the CNDD-FDD was described as “tribal, genocidal terrorists” by the government of the day.

Furthermore, their leader, none other than Nkurunziza, was sentenced to death in absentia following a case concerning anti-personnel mines in the capital, Bujumbura, that cost several human lives.

Is the Bujumbura government, a party to the conflict, in a position to choose who can take part in the negotiations?

To properly handle the Burundian crisis, the mediation process should not favour any party. And if it is to succeed, it will need the unfailing support of the region, the African Union and the UN.

Above all, it is essential not to leave anyone out, to avoid losing time and resources while human lives are at risk on a daily basis in Burundi.

Journalists too have a crucial role to play in overcoming the crisis in Burundi.

 

Journalists targeted

There are over 450 journalists in Burundi, working in the public and private media. Radio is the preferred media for the great majority of Burundians, thanks largely to the steady rise in the number of mobile phones equipped with FM receivers.

But for over a year now they have been helpless in face of the denial of the public’s right to information, despite it being guaranteed by the Constitution, the same constitution that Nkurunziza has trampled underfoot.

A hundred journalists have already been forced into exile, while several media outlets have been closed down or destroyed by force.

Many other media professionals have been imprisoned without evidence, beaten, tortured, intimidated and banned from exercising their craft.

On 14 October 2015 the photo journalist and cameraman Christophe Nkezabahizi from National Burundi Radio and Television (Radio-télévision nationale burundaise - RTNB) was killed together with his wife and two children during a police operation in the dissenting Ngagara neighbourhood in Bujumbura. His killers are still at large.

Massive media repression began as soon as Nkurunziza announced he was standing for a third mandate. In response to peaceful demonstrations, the police descended en masse, dispersed the gatherings and closed the streets leading to the city centre.

The media began to report on this from the first bulletins of the morning of 26 April 2015. There were immediate reprisals. The radio signals transmitting the programmes of four independent radio stations to the interior of the country were cut off. At the same time threats against journalists multiplied. Some were forced underground to avoid elimination.

Protests grew until the failed putsch of 13 May 2015. It was a godsend for the government, who used it as a pretext to get rid of any dissenting voices. All opponents were tarred with the same brush and described as coup plotters or terrorists by Nkurunziza’s inner circle.

A manhunt was launched against all the “enemies of the nation”. That included journalists as far as the government was concerned. Independent radio stations were destroyed in a heavily armed attack on the night of 13 to 14 May.

The leaders of opposition parties and the civil society organisations that had taken part in the protest movement were forced into exile, together with a hundred journalists.

I was one of them. Since May 2015 my wife – who is also a journalist – our three children and I have lived in Kigali, Rwanda. As President of the Burundi Journalists’ Union, I have constantly denounced the attacks on the media. Because I took this stand my family have faced threats and tear gas attacks.

According to the High Commissioner for Refugees (HCR), there are more than 270,000 Burundian refugees in Rwanda, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya. But now it has become much more difficult to get out of the country, or even out of Bujumbura. Every arrival and exit is closely examined by police officers and the heavily armed Imbonerakure militia. Those who have had the misfortune to be arrested have suffered inhuman and degrading treatment.

The few brave journalists who have remained in Burundi operate in constant fear of imprisonment or even death.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has repeatedly denounced the violations of the Burundian journalists’ rights.

In a letter addressed to Nkurunziza, the IFJ says that “The situation regarding the freedom of expression and freedom of the press is getting worse day by day for both Burundian journalists in exile and those who have remained in the country. Media outlets have been destroyed, and although they have taken measures to be able to work on line, they are banned from visiting the scene of events and face continual harassment, arrests and accusations of working for the rebels.”

Media professionals are doing all they can as they struggle to overcome this denial of the public’s right to information, imposed by the Bujumbura authorities.

Several initiatives have emerged both within and outside the country, via radio or social media.

They can only reach a limited audience, of course, and internet connections are not as widespread as in neighbouring countries. But it already marks a step towards the survival of the independent media and above all journalists.

Let us hope that in the future these initiatives will become powerful media operators. As we say here “those who sing today were just chicks yesterday...”.

 

This article has been translated from French.

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