Some 5,000 U.N. peacekeepers are deployed in Burundi to support a peace process aimed at ending the country’s brutal civil war, which has killed hundreds of thousands since ethnic Tutsi troops murdered the elected Hutu president in 1993. Despite wrangling over a new constitution and the postponement of elections by six months, the transitional government of Hutu President Domitien Ndayizeye managed to keep the peace process, begun in 2000, largely on track. Elections were set for April 2005.
While journalists in Burundi still face many difficulties, they point to an improved climate for the press in 2004 and greater access to most parts of the country as fighting has abated.
Burundi’s new draft constitution, due to be put to a popular referendum in 2005, guarantees press freedom. Local journalists say that relations between the government and the media have gradually improved since Ndayizeye took over from Tutsi President Pierre Buyoya in April 2003, in line with peace accords signed in Arusha, Tanzania, in 2000.
Attacks and threats against journalists by government security forces are much less frequent than in the past, they say. A new press law introduced in November 2003 reduced the administrative and financial obstacles to opening new media outlets, encouraging the creation of more private radio stations in 2004.
Private radio stations have gained influence in Burundian society and now compete with the state broadcaster, RTNB. Leading independent radio stations, founded with the help of foreign donors, include Bonesha FM, Radio Isanganiro, and Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), whose founder and director, Alexis Sinduhije, received an International Press Freedom Award from CPJ in 2004.
Launched by Sinduhije in 2001, RPA has defied government bans and intimidation to become one of the country’s most popular radio stations. Although it was not the first private station to broadcast, it has done much to shake the dominance of state radio and to bring Burundians independent news. The station has sought to promote peace by hiring both Hutus and Tutsis, including ex-combatants, who work alongside each other on the editorial team. Its courageous investigative reporting and grassroots approach to issues affecting the lives of ordinary Burundians has earned it the nickname “the People’s Radio.”
However, private print media remain almost nonexistent due to a lack of financing and equipment, especially printing presses. Outdated legal provisions and institutions still threaten press freedom in Burundi. Criminal sanctions remain on the books for press offenses such as insulting the head of state. There are also concerns that the National Communications Council (CNC), which grants broadcasting licenses and monitors media ethics, is not independent of the government because its members are appointed by ministerial decree. Professional and civil-society organizations nominate candidates, but CPJ sources say the government does not always take these nominations into account.
In November, the CNC refused RPA authorization to create a regional radio station in partnership with Ngozi University in the north of the country. CNC President Jean-Pierre Manda said RPA could not create a “university radio” because this might create “possible confusion” over which group is responsible for the station, according to Agence France-Presse. This came after RPA had waited nine months for the CNC to answer its request for permission, Sinduhije told CPJ. No radio service, including state-run RTNB, has any stations outside the capital, Bujumbura.
Local journalists say they continue to face numerous difficulties, including violence and threats. Rural areas around Bujumbura remain dangerous to cover because, despite the peace process, the mainly Hutu rebels of the hard-line National Liberation Forces continue to fight. In addition, many civilians carry arms, both in the cities and the countryside.
In November, the president of Burundi’s electoral commission, Paul Ngarambe, summoned members of Radio Isanganiro and threatened the station with closure, according to a senior source at the station. This came after Radio Isanganiro broadcast a debate in which a participant challenged the government’s handling of preparations for the constitutional referendum, which had been postponed. Later the same day, CNC President Manda came to the station to demand a recording of the program, according to the same source.
Journalists who tackle sensitive subjects, such as corruption and human rights abuses, are subject to increasingly subtle threats and influences, according to local sources; a journalist’s family member or loved one may be encouraged to exert pressure on them. For example, a source told CPJ that one Health Ministry official persuaded a journalist’s brother to pressure the journalist to drop an investigation into illicit pharmaceuticals trading.