New York, August 5, 2016–The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned about the welfare of Burundian journalist Jean Bigirimana. The journalist’s news outlet says he has not been seen or heard from since July 22.
Bigirimana, a reporter with the independent weekly newspaper Iwacu, formerly with the pro-government radio station Rema FM, left his home in the capital Bujumbura around lunch time on July 22, after receiving a phone call from a source in the country’s national intelligence service, Iwacu reported. He has not been seen or heard from since.
The Associated Press, citing Bigirimana’s wife, reported that the journalist was arrested by the National Intelligence Service and that his family fears he is dead. Godeberthe Hakizimana told The Associated Press that her husband left home for Bugaramana in the central province of Muramvya. He did not return despite saying that he would be back for dinner, Iwacu reported.
CPJ was unable to independently confirm that the journalist was arrested or that his life is in danger. However, Human Rights Watch has documented a pattern of abductions, arrests, torture, and killings of civil society activists, journalists, and others by government forces, armed opposition groups, and unknown assailants since April 2015, when protests broke out in response to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a third term. CPJ is aware of at least 100 journalists who have fled Burundi since the mass protests of April 2015 and the ensuing violence.
“Fourteen days after he went missing, Jean Bigirimana’s family and colleagues are still in the dark about his whereabouts and condition,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator. “We call on the government of President Pierre Nkurunziza to disclose any information it has on the journalist’s status, and if it has none, to immediately launch a thorough and credible investigation into his disappearance.”
Bigirimana’s disappearance comes a few weeks after his return from Rwanda, where he had attended a journalism training course, the AP reported.
Iwacu reported on its website that it had received a call from a person claiming to be a “friend of the journalist” who reported that Bigirimana was detained by intelligence agents. Iwacu said that Bigirimana was accused of having shuttled between Burundi and neighboring Rwanda and of having written an article on the life of exiled Burundian journalists living in that country. Burundi and Rwanda are in the throes of a diplomatic spat.
CPJ’s calls and text messages to the journalist’s wife went unanswered. Police spokesman Pierre Nkurikiye did not return CPJ’s phone calls seeking comment. CPJ’s phone calls to Minister of Information Nestor Bankumukunzi went unanswered. The president of the National Council of Communication, Karenga Ramadhan, a former minister of information, told CPJ via WhatsApp on July 29 that his deputy would respond to an inquiry, but CPJ received no further communication or responses to further messages.
Iwacu‘s director, Antoine Kaburahe, who lives in exile in Belgium, told CPJ yesterday that that Jean-Baptiste Baribonekeza, president of Burundi’s National Human Rights Commission, had visited the area where Iwacu‘s sources allege that Bigirimana was abducted and detained by intelligence agents. Baribonekeza returned to the capital on August 3 but cancelled a scheduled press conference about Bigirimana, saying he was still investigating the matter, “He called me to say the commission is still verifying information,” Kaburahe said.
Baribonekeza did not respond to CPJ’s phone calls seeking information.
Kaburahe told the CPJ he was disheartened after a series of tweets by presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe. Nyamitwe today tweeted that the government is investigating Bigirimana’s disappearance. Yesterday, he suggested that the opposition might be behind Bigirimana’s disappearance, tweeting in French, “I’m starting to fear the worst. When you look closely, it’s the same modus operandi of the #Sindumuja for the past for months in #Burundi,” and then “#Sindumuja tactics: Take a person, accuse police of having arrested them, kill them and then throw their body in the street. #Burundi.”
“It’s a kind of sign and it’s very discouraging,” Kaburahe said. CPJ’s attempts to reach Nyamitwe on his mobile phone were not successful.