29 March 2019

Burundi Tightens Screws On Media Freedom

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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press release

The Burundian government today signalled a new attack on media freedom, announcing it would renew the Voice of America's (VOA) suspension and withdraw the British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) operating license. These draconian moves are another attempt to prevent the world from knowing about serious human rights abuses happening in Burundi.

The BBC and VOA, both crucial independent voices in Burundi, have been through this before. A few weeks before a controversial May 2018 constitutional referendum, the National Communication Council (CNC) suspended both media from reporting in the country. At that time, Human Rights Watch found that Burundi's security services and ruling party youth league members killed, raped, abducted, beat, and intimidated suspected opponents in the months leading up to the referendum.

But now the government has gone a step further, officially forbidding any journalist in Burundi from "providing information directly or indirectly that could be broadcast" by either the BBC or VOA. What "indirect" information means is not clear but it could have worrying implications for journalists posting on social media in the country.

The government has accused VOA of continuing to employ Patrick Nduwimana, the former director of the now-off air local radio Bonesha FM. Nduwimana was forced to flee when local radio stations were physically destroyed in 2015, after President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to run for a controversial third term led to a serious human rights crisis.

The BBC is accused of damaging the country's reputation, for broadcasting a documentary on secret torture and detention sites in Burundi, and violating the press law.

By trying to cut off the supply of information at the source, the government may hope it will be able to conduct its affairs without scrutiny.

The decision comes just two days after the release of three schoolgirls jailed this month for allegedly doodling on the president's image in their school books. Their arrest and detention triggered criticism and a global social media campaign encouraging others to scribble on the president's image and post them online to show solidarity, which was covered by the BBC and other international media.

For the last several years, the Burundian government has seemed to treat criticism as intolerable. A journalist remains missing and many others are in exile. And as elections approach next year, it is extremely concerning that the government is doubling down and tightening the noose around some of the last vestiges of freedom of expression in Burundi.

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