On Friday, March 29, the Burundian government announced that it would withdraw British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) license and extend Voice of America’s (VOA) suspension ‘until further notice.’ The sanctions extend to journalists, thus, all Burundian and foreign journalists who are in the country are forbidden from reporting or giving information directly or indirectly to the VOA and BBC.
Burundi’s media regulator, National Council of Communication (CNC) took these measures while accusing the international media organizations of spreading fake news and violating press law. It accused VOA of employing Patrick Nduwimana, a Burundian journalist who opposes the government and currently has an arrest warrant issued against him. The BBC was accused of damaging the country’s reputation, after airing a documentary on secret torture and detention sites in Burundi, which CNC said was fake news.
The country is widely known for its restriction on media operations which have drawn criticism from both local activists and international observers. It is apparent that the government is critical about the representation of the country which is said to be suffering from a serious human rights crisis. For obvious reasons, the government subjected the media to censorship and has over the years, sanctioned media houses and journalists who broadcast information that puts the country or the government in a negative light. In spite of this, the government maintains that its actions are only meant to protect the interests of the country.
Despite the government’s efforts to ‘suppress the truth’ about certain cases of violence and human rights abuses, some media organizations and journalists remain defiant. With the presence of independent media voices in the country like BBC and VOA, it is impossible to prevent sensitive information from leaking out.
Last May, the BBC and VOA were suspended from reporting in the country for a period of six months, for reasons no other breeching media ethics. The suspension was announced two weeks before the controversial constitutional amendment referendum which may have been designed to extend presidential terms and powers.
Critics had condemned the action, saying that the government silenced the two crucial independent voices in the country in order to censor public participation in the referendum. Others said it is a plot to hide its extreme human rights violation from the world. During that time, there were reports about killings and torture carried out by Burundi’s security services and ruling party youth league members. Since then, both broadcasters have been off the air in Burundi.
In press freedom rankings calculated by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Burundi is already ranked 159 out of 180 in the world.
The attack on media and freedom of expression started after a failed coup in May 2015 amid political instability and civil unrest. This crisis was triggered by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term, which he won. Since then, the Pierre led government has stifled press freedom thereby sending many journalist to exile and some reported missing. According to reports by people living in the country, persons who openly work on human rights issues risk detention and organisations risk closure. This was very instrumental in the recent closure of the UN humanitarian office on February 28.
Not only does the Burundian government control the media, but it also allows zero tolerance for criticism no matter whom or what is involved. Just recently, three school children were jailed for allegedly defacing the president’s image in their textbooks. After much uproar and global criticism, the teenage students were released
Till date, Burundi remains on the list of Africa’s countries with a politically driven crisis, alongside Cameroon, Chad and others.