Just when many thought press freedom had hit rock bottom in Burundi, the government-controlled National Communication Council's (CNC) Media Awards this week have added insult to injury.
The theme of this year's ceremony was to celebrate "the role of the media in 'sanitizing' the context for the 2020 elections in Burundi," and honored an unlikely candidate with first prize in the TV category: the communications team of the Burundian national police. Setting aside the obvious - security forces being celebrated with a media award - police in Burundi have been implicated in countless abuses, including killings, excessive use of force, arbitrary arrests and torture of suspected political opponents, and repeatedly harassing journalists who attempt to report on these crimes.
The winner of the print media category was Edouard Nkurunziza, a journalist with Iwacu, the last remaining independent media outlet in Burundi. He told Human Rights Watch that he could not collect his award because he has been living in hiding since he was threatened back in March by a lawmaker. Nkurunziza said that since he went into hiding, he has continued to receive threats. Iwacu wrote a letter raising the case with the president of the National Assembly, which has gone unanswered.
Nkurunziza has good reasons to be afraid. Yesterday, four of his colleagues appeared in court to appeal their sham conviction and two- and-a-half year jail sentence. They were arrested in October 2019 while on a reporting trip to cover fighting between rebels and security forces, and, after a flawed trial, were convicted of attempting to undermine state security. Another one of his colleagues, Jean Bigirimana, has been missing since he disappeared on a reporting trip in July 2016. Unconfirmed reports indicated that members of the Burundian intelligence services arrested him.
Only weeks away from the country's next presidential elections, phony awards from the state's media regulator add an ironic twist to the threats and attacks independent journalists in Burundi continue to face. In these critical times, reporters are needed more than ever to expose wrongdoing and speak truth to power.