Jean Bigirimana, a reporter for the independent Burundian news agency Iwacu, promised to be back soon when he left home around noon on July 22, 2016 after receiving a call from a source from the country’s intelligence agency. That was the last time his wife Godeberthe Hakizimana saw him.
For Iwacu editor-in-chief Abbas Mbazumutima, the following days were “cold” and “inexplicable” as he led a team of reporters who – after a mild response from the authorities – took matters into his own hands and looked for Bigirimana. Five years later, questions remain about Bigirimana’s fate. The episode is emblematic of Burundi’s difficult environment for journalists amid largely unfulfilled reform promises by President Évariste Ndayishimiye.
Bigirimana disappeared a little over a year after an attempted military coup. During the 2015 political crisis, the government stepped up crackdown on the media and silenced Burundi’s once lively independent press. Radio stations were attacked and burned down, and at least 100 Burundian journalists fled into exile. Bigirimana’s disappearance limited the repression.
When Ndayishimiye took office in June 2020, he promised to do justice to all Burundian citizens and to respect freedom of expression. These promises fit into a broader plan to end the country’s years of diplomatic isolation.
Gestures intended to signal a more media-friendly environment have been properly followed. On Christmas Eve last year, Ndayishimiye pardoned and released four journalists from Iwacu who had been detained since 2019, despite having a criminal record.
In January, he instructed the country’s media regulator to consider lifting bans. A radio station, Bonesha, and a pro-government news site, Ikiriho, have since been allowed to resume operations. And in June the regulator announced that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which has been banned from broadcasting in Burundi since 2018, could reapply for an operating license.
However, these steps do not represent a clear break with Burundi’s newer ones Story. There is still no evidence of a credible investigation into the disappearance of Bigirimana.
The media in Burundi continues to operate in a restrictive environment, with a 2018 press law prohibiting the publication of information deemed to be unbalanced. criminalized. Ndayishimiye’s government has even doubled violations in the past.
While the BBC has been welcomed back into the country – at least in theory – Voice of America, which was also banned in 2018, has said that media oversight is bound has his return to Burundi for the “handover” of the VOA journalist Patrick Nduwimana, who “the authorities want to arrest”. VOA rightly denied this outrageous demand.
Nduwimana is one of seven exiled Burundian journalists convicted in June 2020 of complicity in the 2015 coup attempt and sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia.
None had legal counsel at the trial, and their convictions were not published until February of this year. Some of the convicted journalists have informed the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that their efforts to obtain a copy of the verdict have been rejected.
Nduwimana is one of seven exiled Burundian journalists who died in June Convicted in 2020 of complicity in the attempted coup in 2015 and sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia. None of them had legal counsel at the trial, and their convictions were not published until February of this year.
Some of the journalists convicted have told the Journalists’ Protection Committee (CPJ) that their efforts to obtain a copy of the verdict have been rejected .
Not surprisingly, Burundian journalists who have spoken to the CPJ, especially those in exile, are skeptical about whether Ndayishimiye is really committed to press freedom. The government’s failure to break old repressive methods and the lack of a credible investigation into Bigirimana’s disappearance make the changes seem like piecemeal measures aimed at appeasing the international community eager to rebuild bridges with Burundi.
Freedom of the press should be at the heart of any international effort to revive diplomatic relations with the country. The European Union, which recently lifted the suspension of direct financial assistance to Burundi in 2016, should now seek tough commitments to improve conditions for the media, hold authorities accountable and not accept gestures as guarantees of real reform.
The UN Commission of Inquiry into Burundi, which monitors and publicly reports human rights violations, is also still indispensable for monitoring the country’s progress in its fragile transition. The international community must support the extension of the Commission’s mandate, which expires in October.
Above all, the Burundian government must do better. A proper investigation into Bigirimana’s disappearance would show that attacks on journalists will not go with impunity and that the government is committed to protecting the press. And this should only be part of broader reforms.
The government should unconditionally lift all media bans, lift convictions of journalists in exile, and revise laws that restrict the work of the media. At his inauguration, Ndayishimiye said he wanted to build Burundi on the basis of good governance and human rights. To achieve these goals, an independent press is essential.
Journalists in Burundi must be allowed to work in an environment where they cannot be prosecuted for following a sensitive story, where they can trust that the government protects them, and where they do not have to operate in the shadow of the unsolved disappearance of Bigirimana.
Muthoki Mumo is representative for Sub-Saharan Africa at the Committee for the Protection of Journalists. She previously worked as a journalist for the Nation Media Group in Nairobi and wrote for the Daily Nation and Business Daily .