Jean Bigirimana, a reporter with the independent media group Iwacu, formerly with the pro-government radio station Rema FM, left his home in the capital Bujumbura around lunch time on July 22, 2016, after receiving a phone call from a source in the country’s national intelligence service, Iwacu reported. Bigirimana, who also contributed to the news website Infos Grands Lacs, has been missing since.
The Associated Press, citing Bigirimana’s wife, reported that the journalist was arrested by the National Intelligence Service and that his family feared he was dead. His wife, Godeberthe Hakizimana, told the AP that her husband left home for Bugaramana in the central province of Muramvya. He did not return despite saying that he would be back soon, Iwacu reported.
Bigirimana’s disappearance came 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 woman claiming to be a "friend of the journalist" who reported that Bigirimana was detained by intelligence agents. 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, according to Iwacu and an interview that the media outlet’s editor gave to the online news outlet Africa News in August 2016.
CPJ was unable to independently confirm that the journalist was arrested. Citing unnamed sources, Iwacu reported that Bigirimana was detained at an intelligence facility in the eastern Muramvya and that he had “been extremely beaten and [was] starving” as of August 3, 2016.
Iwacu’s director, Antoine Kaburahe, who lives in exile, told CPJ that Jean-Baptiste Baribonekeza, president of Burundi’s National Human Rights Commission (CNIDH) at the time, had visited the area where Iwacu’s sources alleged 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. A few days later, the CNIDH said that it had not found Bigirimana, had no information about his whereabouts, and had not found an intelligence detention facility in Muramvya, according to an Iwacu report.
A group of journalists from Iwacu carried out their own investigation into the disappearance, and searched for Bigirimana in Muramvya province, following leads from sources who reported bodies dumped in a river, the media outlet reported. On August 7, 2016, the group found a body in the remote Mubarazi river and on August 9, in an expedition that included local police and officials from the human rights commission, they found a second body, according to Iwacu. They feared that one of these bodies, both decomposing and one decapitated, might be Bigirimana.
On August 16, 2016, the two bodies were buried by officials in Muramvya and Iwacu quoted Hakizimana saying that officials had given her a “few minutes” to identify the bodies, though she “became convinced that Jean was not among them.” Iwacu reported that the burials were rushed despite its demands for a “scientific identification” of the bodies including DNA tests. In a July 2021 interview with Iwacu, Hakizimana said that she was scared and in shock when she was asked to identify the bodies in 2016 and that in retrospect she feared the decapitated body might have been Bigirimana.
At the time, Human Rights Watch had 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. At least 100 journalists fled Burundi following the 2015 crisis, as CPJ reported.
Iwacu reported that Bigirimana, a law school graduate, worked at Rema FM from 2011 until 2015 when the station closed temporarily, after it was attacked amid protests, as CPJ documented. He later became a correspondent with Infos Grands Lacs before he was recruited to Iwacu shortly before his disappearance, according to the same Iwacu reports.
CPJ’s calls and text messages to Hakizimana, the journalist’s wife, went unanswered in 2016. In 2017 Hakizimana and her two young children were forced into exile, following threats to her life, according to media reports.
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. Then president of the National Council of Communication, Karenga Ramadhan, a former minister of information, told CPJ via WhatsApp on July 29, 2016, that his deputy would respond to an inquiry, but CPJ received no further communication or responses to further messages. Baribonekeza did not respond to CPJ’s phone calls seeking information in 2016.
A spokesperson Burundi’s public prosecutor’s office told Iwacu that investigations into Bigirimana’s case were still ongoing, according to a report by the outlet on July 22, 2021, the fifth anniversary of the journalist’s disappearance.