After a bloody civil war that shook Burundi for 12 years, Pierre Nkurunziza and his former rebel group cum political party NCDD-FDD, came to power in 2005. The international community heaved a sigh of relief and Nkurunziza was given credit for ensuring stability. In 2010 however, President Nkurunziza and the NCDD-FDD were re-elected with an absolute majority during elections boycotted by the opposition. Matters then took a turn for the worse.
Nkurunziza clamped down on opposition and drove NCDD-FDD’s only coalition partner, UPRONA, out of the government. The Nkurunziza government also came to see members of civil society, who were critical, as opposition. Then it targeted the press with restrictive legislation.
International NGO’s have warned that press freedom in Burundi has reached a critical phase. US-based Freedom House ranks Burundi’s press as “not free”, mainly due to the country’s political and legal environment. Human Rights Watch stated that Burundi’s press law is “abusive”. Apart from occasional violence, arbitrary arrests and intimidation of journalists by security forces, the press law is at the heart of the problem for journalists who want to report critically on government policy.
Dating from April 2013, the press law gives the Nkurunziza government wide-ranging authority to severely limit the reporting of journalists. The law included new press-related crimes which, when committed, would be penalised with exorbitant fines or the withdrawal of press credentials. These fines could be three times the average annual salary of a Burundian. Under the law, journalists risk losing their livelihood and becoming indebted for the rest of their lives.
The law also required Burundian journalists to complete a degree in journalism. Experienced journalists would hereby become banished from the profession at a great cost for investigative and critical journalism. Journalists can also be compelled to release their sources. The principle of confidentiality is thrown away like a rag.
Perhaps most damaging to press freedom, journalists under this law are forbidden to report on topics concerning national defence, public safety, state security and the local currency. Any journalist that even remotely approaches any of these topics risks being prosecuted.
While NCDD-FDD officials state that they want to professionalise the media and ensure the press doesn’t incite violence, there appears to be more at stake. Even though journalists in Burundi persist in reporting on these topics and the law seems not to be enforced on a large scale for now, the mere existence of the law is a threat to the freedom of press and expression.
Nkurunziza and his party NCDD-FDD are looking to extend their rule in the 2015 general elections. In March, one of the key opposition parties, the Movement for Solidarity and Development (MSD) was suspended for four months after violent clashes between their supporters and the police. Twenty-one MSD activists were also sentenced to life in prison in the wake of this event. The International Crisis Group (ICG) has already expressed its concern regarding a possible escalation of violence in the coming elections. In the run-up to these elections of next year, considering this increasingly strained atmosphere between government and opposition, it is most important that the press is fully given the possibility to fulfil its role as fourth estate. The Burundian media, which at the moment is working to fulfil this role, has the crucial task to inform the populace, especially on the topics which they are now forbidden to report.
Several NGO’s already appealed to Nkurunziza and his government to revoke the press law. However, it seems as though more incentives are needed to persuade the NCDD-FDD of the importance of a revocation.
As Burundi’s most important donor country Belgium has the responsibility to put the topic of freedom of press and expression on the table. Belgium is currently re-negotiating its bilateral donor agreement with Burundi and it would be a missed opportunity if the Belgian government didn’t take the lead. It should be made clear that the bilateral agreement involves rights, but also obligations. One of those obligations should imply respecting the human right to freedom of expression and freedom of press.
Belgium must become a trailblazer by introducing conditionality in its bilateral agreement with Burundi. Ahead of the elections, journalists are hoping Belgium takes action.