Media houses have been shuttered, journalists attacked, and critics of the government murdered. But one broadsheet is still covering the African country's descent into chaos.
BUJUMBURA, Burundi — Christophe Nkezabahizi toiled for years at Radio Télévision Nationale du Burundi (RTNB), the mouthpiece of a regime that would eventually kill him along with his entire family.
After suspected rebels attacked two policemen with grenades, officers went on a killing spree in Nkezabahizi’s neighborhood. They ordered the 58-year-old cameraman out into the street and shot him execution-style in front of his wife, two children, and nephew. Nkezabahizi’s wife, Alice, who had been among the first women to drive a lorry in Burundi, was then forced onto her knees, along with her two children, one of whom had a developmental disability, and the nephew, who was training to become a psychologist.
The officers killed them all, a bullet each to the back of their heads.
The story of the massacre in Ngagara, a neighborhood in the capital known for its opposition to the government, where a total of 10 people were killed on Oct. 13, 2015, was one of a growing number of atrocities that might never have been exposed if it weren’t for the last independent media outlet still publishing in Burundi. Even as the government has grown increasingly heavy-handed, shuttering TV and radio stations not run by the state and exiling or murdering its critics, the respected newsweekly Iwacu has continued to shine a light on the almost daily killings gripping this tiny Central African nation.
“Here there is no freedom for independent media. We are the only ones; the others are under the thumb of the government,” Léandre Sikuyavuga, Iwacu’s editor in chief, said recently. “Our responsibility is now very big, since we are trying to fill the gap, trying to speak for those [media outlets that] were burned down.”
Burundi was plunged into a virtual domestic media blackout after a failed coup attempt last May. The plotters announced their takeover on African Public Radio, one of the most important independent radio stations in Burundi, prompting supporters of the government to bomb its downtown headquarters after the putsch unraveled. At least four other radio or television stations were damaged or destroyed in the mayhem, and several that had carried news of the coup were ordered to close by authorities. Since then, attacks on journalists have become commonplace, and at least 100 have fled to neighboring countries, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Inside Burundi, only the state-run RTNB, which doesn’t stray from the government’s messaging, is still broadcasting.
“It’s incredibly challenging for journalists now in Burundi, and of course many are simply not able to operate,” said Rachel Nicholson, a researcher focusing on Burundi at Amnesty International. “The clampdown on the media is creating a worrying news vacuum and denies Burundians the free access to information that they have a right to.”
Iwacu suspended publication for a week after receiving a series of anonymous threats in the wake of the coup. But otherwise the broadsheet has published throughout Burundi’s 8-month-old crisis, chronicling the gruesome aftermath of President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to defy protests and seek a controversial third term in office. With coverage in the international media sporadic and mostly relegated to the back pages, Iwacu has produced the definitive first draft of an increasingly dark period in Burundian history — from the government’s brutal crackdown on demonstrators in May to the subsequent (and ongoing) spate of extrajudicial killings to the recent hardening of the protest movement into an armed rebellion
It has done so against a backdrop of remarkable hostility toward the press. Journalists at other media outlets have been arrested and tortured; one had a grenade flung through her window. At Iwacu, reporters say one of their colleagues fled the country after receiving death threats. Another multimedia journalist who asked not to be named said authorities confiscated his cameras and destroyed some of his footage. Others said they had received menacing phone calls or had been warned by security services not to dig too deeply into government abuses.
Christian Bigirimana, the lead reporter on the investigation into the RTNB cameraman’s death, recalled how a government soldier confronted him back in November. “He approached me back home in my neighborhood and said, ‘You work at Iwacu, and you are messing things up,’” said Bigirimana. “It wasn’t physical, but I could feel from his body language that he was threatening me.”
Burundi does not have a long history with independent media. The first private radio stations were set up during the country’s 1993-2005 civil war, in which an estimated 300,000 people were killed. Like in neighboring Rwanda, where radio played an ignominious role in inciting ethnic slaughter, Burundians were also called to kill their neighbors over the airwaves — in particular by Radio Rutomarangingo, based in neighboring Zaire, now Democratic Republic of the Congo. But more recently the radio has been used as a tool for reconciliation, and in the mid- to late 1990s a host of media start-ups were launched with the aim of promoting tolerance and understanding.
Founded by exiles in Belgium after the assassination of Burundi’s first democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadaye, in 1993, Iwacu was part of this first entree into independent media. But published only abroad, the paper served mainly to keep the diaspora abreast of events in Burundi. (Iwacu means “at home” in the Kirundi language.) It began publishing inside the country in 2008 and quickly became the most widely circulated newspaper.
Still, in a country where a significant portion of the population is illiterate, print media has never been able to compete with the airwaves. An estimated 85 percent of Burundi’s 10 million inhabitants tune into the radio, many listening on their mobile phones. By comparison, Iwacu runs off a modest 6,000 copies of every issue — 3,000 in French and 3,000 in Kirundi. This relatively low profile, along with the professionalism of Iwacu journalists, helps to explain why the paper has been allowed to keep publishing, even as the government clamps down on radio and television stations that represent a greater threat.
But as the government grows more paranoid about international intervention — both the United States and European Union have sanctioned individual Burundian officials and the African Union has threatened to send peacekeepers — journalists worry the government could move to silence Iwacu as well.
The most troubling sign that the newsweekly is now in the government’s crosshairs came in November, when Iwacu’s founder and director of operations, Antoine Kaburahe, was picked up for questioning by prosecutors. He was released and later traveled to Belgium, but the government has since sought his extradition on charges stemming from the failed coup attempt. Phone records showing he was in contact with the ringleaders, the government claims, are proof that he was in on the plot.
Responding to questions over email from Belgium, Kaburahe said he wasn’t “even remotely linked to the coup” and that it should not be considered suspicious for a journalist to have been in contact with the plotters.
“We were trying to understand what was happening.… Journalists are there to inform,” he wrote. Kaburahe lamented what he called a “terrible regression of freedom of expression” in Burundi, where “those in power are becoming very nervous and tolerate little criticism.”
A spokesman for the Burundian presidency did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but in the past the government has said it is investigating the role played by independent media outlets during the attempted coup. Only once these outlets are cleared of any wrongdoing will they be allowed back on air. “We must first wait for the public prosecutor to finish his investigation, to identify the losses, and to catch the perpetrators so [they can] be punished according to the law,” presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe told the website African Arguments last May.
But more than seven months later the investigation has not been concluded, and none of the media outlets have been allowed to reopen. Only at Iwacu are the presses still running.
One morning in early December, a packed newsroom at the paper’s office in the leafy neighborhood of Rohero was hurtling toward its Thursday print deadline (the paper hits newsstands on Friday). Editors inspected page proofs and shouted last-minute queries to reporters typing madly on their laptops. On the white board above the wooden conference table was a rough mock-up of the issue: An item on “Consultations Between Burundi and the EU” was slated to run next to an article on the “Everyday Lives of the Youth,” a catch-all term for members of the opposition.
But the article everyone was talking about was to run under the headline “5 Executions in Mutakura.” It was the paper’s latest effort to expose the government’s relentless campaign of extrajudicial killings.
“This is why we do this,” said one of the reporters who worked on the investigation. “That’s why it’s worth it.”
Photo credit: Ty McCormick/Foreign Policy