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Burundian journalists mark World Press Freedom day, May 3, 2015, by taping their mouths shut to protest worsening conditions on the press in Bujumbura. (AP/Jerome Delay)

Mounting press freedom crisis in Burundi

October 25, 2016 4:20 PM ET

Nairobi, October 25, 2016--The Committee to Protect Journalists today expressed alarm about the deteriorating situation for the media in Burundi. In the past three days alone, the Interior Ministry closed the country's journalists' union and security forces detained reporters on assignment.

Interior Minister Pascal Barandagiye yesterday indefinitely suspended the operating permits of five organizations, including the Burundian Union of Journalists (UBJ, by its French acronym), and banned an additional five leading civil society groups outright, the independent Iwacu newspaper reported.

The Interior Ministry order came a day after Burundian security forces detained journalist Julia Steers, a fellow with the International Women's Media Foundation, her fixer Gildas Yihundimpundu, and driver Pascal Sinahagera while the three were reporting in the Mutakura suburb of Bujumbura, the site of days of protests in April 2015, according to media reports. Steers, an American citizen, was released to the U.S. Embassy soon after her arrest, but Yihundimpundu, who also freelances for the BBC, and Sinahagera, their driver, were held overnight at the headquarters of Burundi's National Intelligence Service (SNR, by its French acronym) and released yesterday evening.

"By suspending the permit of the country's journalists' union, Burundi's government has expanded from jailing journalists to trying to silence those who courageously stand up for their imprisoned colleagues," CPJ East Africa Representative Murithi Mutiga said. "We call on Burundian authorities to release all journalists behind bars for their work, and to allow the Burundian Union of Journalists to operate freely."

Burundian Information Minister Nestor Bankumukunzi did not immediately respond to CPJ's requests on the reasons for the ban or the recent detention of journalists.

UBJ Chairman Alexandre Niyungeko told CPJ that the Interior Ministry's decision had neither been officially communicated to the union nor had the union been given any reasons for the order.

"The union has consistently condemned the attacks against the media and the closing of the window for free expression, and we can only conclude that this is the reason for this action," he said.

Burundi, formerly home to a lively news media, has in the past year become so hostile to independent journalists that CPJ is aware of at least 100 Burundian journalists forced to flee the country since April 2015. Those who remain risk arrest, or worse. SNR officers on October 2 arrested Salvador Nahimana, a reporter for the Catholic station Radio Maria, without specifying a reason for his arrest, CPJ reported at the time. Nahimana remains in state custody.

Another journalist, Jean Bigirimana of the newspaper Iwacu, has been missing since July 22. CPJ reported at the time that Bigirimana left his house after receiving a call from the intelligence service and has not been seen since. Bigirimana's family have told reporters they believe he was arrested or killed.

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