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Burundi: 'horrific times' for critical press

July 22, 2017

One year ago in Burundi, journalist Jean Bigirimana disappeared without a trace. The government is playing down the case, but critics say freedom of the press is in dire straits in the crisis-torn East African country.

Office of the media group Iwacu in Bujumbura
Image: DW/A. Niragira

It has been a year now: On July 22, 2016, 37-year-old journalist Jean Bigirimana left the editorial department of the independent Iwacu newspaper in the Burundian capital Bujumbura. He was on his way to a meeting in the town of Bugarama, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) away. Unconfirmed accounts claim that he was abducted by security services along the way. The only thing that is certain is that he never returned. Agnes Ndirubusa, editor-in-chief at Iwacu, describes the mood among colleagues: "One year on we still cannot come to grips with the fact that a colleague would leave and never return," she tells DW. "We just feel resignation. We imagine what might have transpired and chills run down our spines."

Media campaign for Bigirimana

The Iwacu newspaper did not let the case go. Shortly after Bigirimana's disappearance it began a campaign, which gained international attention, calling for his release. Colleagues wanted to ensure that Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza's government couldn't simply sweep the case under the rug. Bigirimana had consistently criticized the head of state, who, despite a constitutional ban, decided to run for a third term as the country's president in 2015.

Many observers are convinced that Bigirimana's disappearance was the direct result of his critical reporting. But the government has denied any responsibility from the very beginning. The police say that there is no way the journalist was apprehended by the country's security services. At the same time, the justice department said that it would do everything in its power to thoroughly investigate the case.

Burundi Präsident Nkurunziza arrives for the celebrations to mark Burundi's 55th anniversary of the independence at the Prince Louis Rwagasore stadium in Bujumbura
Critics claim that President Nkurunziza's government wants to silence the pressImage: Reuters/E. Ngendakumana

Bodies in the river

Two weeks after Bigirimana's disappearance a number of bodies were found floating in rivers near where he had last been seen. A team of Iwacu journalists hurried to the scene and suspected that one of those corpses was that of their colleague. The police immediately contradicted that suspicion, saying that the journalist was not among the bodies they had found. But human rights activists remain skeptical. They say that there were no autopsies, nor DNA tests performed on any of the bodies. Instead, they were quickly disposed of.

One other thing is clear as well: Jean Bigirimana is not the only journalist or human rights activist to have disappeared in Burundi over the last two years. Recently another case made headlines, in which four Burundian students disappeared during a trip to the USA. However, authorities are convinced that there was no foul play involved in the case. Meanwhile, two of the students have reportedly been found in Canada.

But in December of 2015, Marie-Claudette Kwizera, from the Burundian human rights group Ligue Iteka, was in fact dragged into a secret service vehicle and driven away. She, too, was never seen again. Attorney Eddy Claude Nininahazwe told DW that the government has vehemently denied any involvement in her case as well. "These are terrifying times for government-critical journalists and human rights activists in Burundi," he says. He is furious at the country's justice department and not only for its attitude in the case of Jean Bigirimana. He accuses authorities of having spread lies and covered up facts in the course of its investigations.

Burundian photographer and human rights activist Teddy Mazina told DW that freedom of press is in dire straits in Burundi. He says that Jean Bigirimana's disappearance is symbolic of a country in which the rights of critical journalists and human rights activists are being trampled. Mazina says he is convinced that Bigirimana was murdered. The disappearance occurred one year ago and nothing worthy of being called an investigation has taken place. "I also know that Bigirimana's wife and two children had to flee to Rwanda after they received numerous death threats," says Mazina.

Burundi Bujumbura press conference
Journalists in Burundi work under challenging conditionsImage: DW/J. Johannsen

Bigirimana's house covered with blood

Meanwhile, Bigirimana's wife Godeberte Hakizimana lives in neighboring Rwanda. In an exclusive DW interview she confirmed that she had been repeatedly terrorized and threatened in Burundi: "They covered the door to our house with blood. We received death threats. They said that I was injuring the honor of my country from Rwanda and that I was digging my own grave."

The Burundian government has steadfastly maintained its version of the incident. Stating that neither security services, nor any other agency under government control was responsible for the journalist's disappearance.

"The government of Burundi deeply regrets the disappearance of journalist Jean Bigirimana," the country's minister for human rights, Martin Mivyanbandi, told DW. He went on to say: "All competent authorities have been put on the case and are doing everything they can to find the journalist's body, should he in fact be dead, or to find any information about the incident."

At the same time, the minister admits that a number of journalists have left the country since Burundi's political crisis began in 2015. But he added that one must take the political situation into account. He explained that there have been a number of conflicts since then, and that these were carried out with a total lack of tolerance. "And journalists have played a disgraceful role during this time. Many media outlets have shown themselves to be completely overtaxed and immature throughout. They exaggerated the conflict and manipulated the facts." Mivyanbandi added that the government is currently trying to get journalists who left the country to return and help Burundi find reconciliation. It seems highly unlikely that many will take them up on the offer at this time.

Antediteste Niragira contributed to this article     

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