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Burundi gags critics

Sarah Steffen / guMay 3, 2015

In reaction to protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid to secure a third term in office, Burundian authorities have restricted the work of independent radio stations and blocked access to social media.

Armed police in riot gear walk in front of the shuttered RPA broadcasting studio. Photo: REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
Image: Reuters/T. Mukoya

Police descended on the studios of Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) in Burundi's capital, Bujumbura, and ordered journalists there to stop their work, the independent radio station's director, Bob Rugurika, told DW. The police officers presented a document signed by Bujumbura's public prosecutor.

"We can no longer enter the radio station. The police are now in the building. No employee is able to go into the building," Rugurika said. "We are very worried. These people could steal or destroy material."

The Burundian authorities had accused RPA and two other independent broadcasters of inciting protests against the government with their news coverage. For months, thousands of people have been taking to the streets to demonstrate against a third term in office for President Nkurunziza. Last weekend the protests flared up again after Nkurunziza's party nominated him as its candidate for the June 26 presidential election.

"All we did was to fulfill our duty to inform our listeners," Rugurika stressed, "but the government was unhappy with the coverage provided by the private news outlets." He denied accusations of biased reporting. "People from the government have also always been invited to our programs, broadcasts and talk shows," he said.

Two RPA journalists prepare a radio program in their studio. Photo: REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
RPA, a leading privately owned radio station, was stormed by police and barred from broadcastingImage: Reuters/T. Mukoya

Independent media targeted

Two other privately owned radio stations, Bonesha FM and Isanganiro, are now no longer allowed to provide live coverage of the demonstrations. Their relay transmitters have been cut, confining their broadcast range to the city of Bujumbura and preventing the broadcasters from reaching the rest of the country. The police also raided the Press House, where the office of the Burundi Journalist Union is located. Several stations had been using the Press House as their base for joint coverage of the elections.

"That is a serious infringement on press freedom," RPA's Rugurika emphasized. "Things got even worse when the state-owned telecommunications provider shut down all the fixed-line connections."

"We are very concerned about the situation in Burundi," said Clea Kahn-Sriber from the Africa desk of Reporters Without Borders, a media freedom watchdog. "For us it is unacceptable that media outlets that are just doing their job by enabling a debate about the country's problems are forcibly prevented from conducting this debate." Burundi is ranked 145th out of 175 countries on the World Press Freedom Index, which is published annually by her organization.

A protester carries a placard urging the government to re-open their local Radio Publique Africaine (RPA). Photo: REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
The government is trying to silence critics and curb protests ahead of a presidential electionImage: Reuters/T. Mukoya

President Nkurunziza is openly trying to silence media coverage of disagreeable events, according to Christian Mihr, director of Reporters Without Borders Germany.

This week the Burundian authorities resorted to suspending access to social media such as Facebook and Twitter as well as instant messaging services such as Whatsapp. Many of the demonstrators had used the platforms to organize. "We blocked social networks for security reasons," Deogratias Rurimunzu, Director General of Burundi's Agency for the Regulation and the Control of Telecommunications (ARCT), told the dpa news agency.

'Blatant' attempts to stifle dissent

"Burundian authorities are blatantly trying to gag any media coverage of opposition to President Pierre Nkurunziza's attempt to secure a third term in office," said Tom Rhodes, East Africa Representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a media advocacy group. "The credibility of Burundi's elections rests in large part on free press coverage of the process, and we call on authorities to let journalists and media outlets do their jobs," Rhodes added.

Neven Mimica, the EU Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, condemned the attacks on press freedom, saying they "prevent Burundians from understanding what is happening around them and from expressing themselves, particularly in the delicate moments before the start of an election campaign." Restricting freedom of expression and assembly "can only encourage rumors, promote frustration and heighten tensions on the street," the EU commissioner added. The United States also urged Burundi's government to allow peaceful dissent and political opposition in the country.

People cheer and dance during protests. Photo: REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
For months, Burundians have been demonstrating against President Nkurunziza trying to secure a third term in officeImage: Reuters/T. Mukoya

In the meantime, the University of Burundi in the country's capital has been closed in a further attempt to contain the protests. Thousands of students, many of them from rural areas, were escorted off the campus by police. Most students are against Nkurunziza running for a third term. Officially, the university was closed because of "security concerns," but the students see this as a pretext. "After all, we would be the first to know," said 29-year-old Leopold. The authorities, he said, were only hoping that this would stop the demonstrations.

Frejus Quenum contributed to this article.

LINK: http://www.dw.de/dw/article/0,,18422138,00.html