Article written

  • on 07.07.2015
  • at 10:07 PM
  • by Naomi Cohen

Exiled Burundian journalists without sign of return 0

Burundi’s independent journalists have almost entirely fled the country, driven out by intimidation, interrogation, arrests, violence, and death threats by state forces. Two months after the biggest wave of repression against the media, exiled reporters must rely on themselves, even if international aid shows up. 

Pierre Claver Niyonkuru is expecting his first child in three months, but he still doesn’t know where it will be born. He hopes it won’t be in Kigali, Rwanda, where he can’t afford food and rent and where he has been in exile for the past five weeks.

His home country, Burundi, has seen grenades, Molotov cocktails, and fires since the end of April, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his candidature for a third term. The opposition, civil society and Catholic church deem the run unconstitutional and against the 2000 Arusha power-sharing accords signed during a 13-year civil war. An unsuccessful coup in mid-May sparked a new wave of repression by security forces and a pro-government youth militia.

Independent journalists like Niyonkuru have been targeted even more severely than outspoken politicians. Some have been interrogated, others detained, and several given multiple death threats. African Public Radio (RPA), the country’s most popular privately-owned station, was set ablaze May 14, the day after the coup attempt and the radio’s forced closure. Radio Isanganiro’s equipment and vehicles were shot at, and the studios of Bonesha FM and Renaissance Radio and Television were damaged by grenades. All privately-owned media except one paper and one news agency have been forcibly closed and prohibited from using a collective studio. Even before the attacks, the government passed a law criminalizing certain reporting and imprisoned Bob Rugurika, RPA’s Director, for not sharing his sources.

Over 144,000 Burundians have left the country, including an exodus of journalists, international monitors, foreign correspondents, human rights activists, and high officials. Besides those with ties to Europe, the refugees  are scattered in neighbouring countries, especially Rwanda. Burundians also fled to Rwanda during its civil war, and each country suspects the other of training rebels.

“Unfortunately, we meet someone we knew in Bujumbura every day,” said Ines Gakiza, who fled to Kigali the day after RPA burned down. She only warned a few close relatives before leaving, after their strong encouragement to go to save her life.

Most journalists left with their families, but only some have a strong enough network to gather enough funds to sustain them.  Niyonkuru said that he would like to help others but, still without aid, cannot even help himself. He recently started collaborating with other Burundian journalists on a program in Kirundi broadcasted in six Rwandan radio stations accessible in parts of Burundi. The one-hour show features a spectrum of political views—while currently unthinkable in Burundi, Rwanda currently ranks even lower in the World Press Freedom index.

Gakiza is currently unemployed but not inactive: “When we become journalists, we remain journalists always,” she said. “Even though we are outside our country, we don’t forget our vocation.”

Both remain in touch with journalists still in Burundi, though Alexandre Niyungeko, president of the Burundi Journalists’ Union, said more are fleeing every day. After Rugurika, Niyungeko is next on the security force’s hit list and fled to Kigali after threats to his family. He is in charge of coordinating aid to union members, but has had trouble receiving accurate information both inside Burundi, where official sources are rarely credible, and outside, where applications for assistance are confidential.

International press and rights groups are scrambling to help the journalists. Most are organized  through the Journalists in Distress program, which is covering the immediate needs of exiled reporters, including housing, food, and eventually schooling costs for their children. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is independently securing 17,000 € to the Burundian and Rwandan journalist unions, which distribute the funds. International Media Support is looking at supporting Iwacu, the last surviving independent paper in Burundi. The European Union also sent assistance through its delegation in Kigali. Still, not all are being reached; the organizations only know of the journalists that apply directly for funds. Their strategy, then, also relies on lobbying and advocacy to urge an end to the media repression.

“There is significant pressure on the country, but it must remain and must be translated into concrete action,” said Ernest Sagaga, head of human rights at the International Federation of Journalists.

The African Union is deploying military experts, and the East African Community and United Nations each sent mediators to open up a dialogue. The European Union threatened sanctions and withdrew its monitors for the June 30 election, which turned violent and were internationally discredited.

Even reporters still in Burundi had very limited access to information during the elections, unless they worked for state-controlled media. Shortly after government closure of the independent press, Iwacu published a special issue with public figures like Sagaga—a Rwandan—expressing solidarity.

For journalists on the other side of the border, the long-term strategy of opening up the press is met with the short-term need of returning home and resuming work.  With escalating tensions, though, a date remains unclear.

“To say that we can return soon would be to lie,” said Gakiza. She added that the Burundian press was freer in the past and encourages her colleagues to stay brave and determined in the face of persistent threats.

“If things don’t change,” said Niyonkuru, “I don’t think I’ll jump into the fire.”

 by Naomi Cohen

Photo Credit: Infos Grand Lacs

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