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Burundi Denies Press Crackdown, Then Arrests Two Journalists

Burundi arrested a French journalist and a British photojournalist Thursday, after claiming the country's press is not threatened by the government.

BUJUMBURA, BURUNDI - JANUARY 29: French journalist for Le Monde newspaper Jean Philippe Remy (L) and British freelance photographer Phil Moore (R) are seen at the office of the attorney general, after being arrested during a police raid together with 15 others and released one day later, in Bujumbura, Burundi on January 29, 2016. (Photo by Yvan Rukundo/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
BUJUMBURA, BURUNDI - JANUARY 29: French journalist for Le Monde newspaper Jean Philippe Remy (L) and British freelance photographer Phil Moore (R) are seen at the office of the attorney general, after being arrested during a police raid together with 15 others and released one day later, in Bujumbura, Burundi on January 29, 2016. (Photo by Yvan Rukundo/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Journalists Jean-Philippe Remy and Phil Moore were wandering through Nyakabiga, an opposition neighborhood in Burundi’s increasingly unstable capital of Bujumbura, when they were unexpectedly arrested Thursday afternoon by government security forces.

Remy, the Africa bureau chief for French daily newspaper Le Monde, and Phil Moore, a British freelance photojournalist working on a project with Remy, were two of 17 people arrested in the neighborhood-wide raid.

Julia Steers, a Kenyan-based freelance American journalist who has spent the past six weeks covering the spiraling civil unrest in Burundi, told Foreign Policy in a phone call that Remy and Moore were released Friday evening after more than 24 hours in custody. Both were held at Burundi’s intelligence headquarters -- a building that is locally notorious for torturing detainees during interrogations -- and ultimately released without being charged.

Journalists Jean-Philippe Remy and Phil Moore were wandering through Nyakabiga, an opposition neighborhood in Burundi’s increasingly unstable capital of Bujumbura, when they were unexpectedly arrested Thursday afternoon by government security forces.

Remy, the Africa bureau chief for French daily newspaper Le Monde, and Phil Moore, a British freelance photojournalist working on a project with Remy, were two of 17 people arrested in the neighborhood-wide raid.

Julia Steers, a Kenyan-based freelance American journalist who has spent the past six weeks covering the spiraling civil unrest in Burundi, told Foreign Policy in a phone call that Remy and Moore were released Friday evening after more than 24 hours in custody. Both were held at Burundi’s intelligence headquarters — a building that is locally notorious for torturing detainees during interrogations — and ultimately released without being charged.

When Remy and Moore were rounded up along with 15 Burundians — who presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe said on Twitter were members of the armed opposition — Steers said it was widely feared the two journalists also would be physically abused.

“Burundian journalists and activists and other young men who have been arrested here often, [the intelligence headquarters] is where they suffer torture and abuse at the hands of the authorities,” she said.

Steers accompanied French and British diplomats in Burundi when they visited the detained journalists at the intelligence headquarters Friday morning. She said Remy and Moore told her they were not mistreated while in detention, and were held separately from the 15 other people who were arrested. It is not yet clear whether the others have also been released.

Steers said Remy and Moore, who were stopped separately in Nyakabiga, both deny they were with any armed opposition members when they were arrested. The scale of Thursday’s raid was “just a typical afternoon in Bujumbura,” Steers said.

Within hours of the diplomats’ visit, the two journalists were transported to the prosecutor’s office, where they were interrogated together and separately before being released by Burundian authorities, Steers said.

Their phones and camera equipment, however, have not yet been returned. In and of itself, that is a major concern if authorities tamper with the equipment and put the journalists’ local contacts at risk.

Civil unrest broke out in Burundi last April after President Pierre Nkurunziza claimed he qualified for a third term. The opposition claimed the move was unconstitutional and mobilized large-scale protests that quickly became violent. In May, a there was an attempted coup. He failed, and in July, Nkurunziza won reelection with 69 percent of the vote.

Over the past nine months, some 237,000 people have fled the country, including at least 100 journalists. Others have been killed or have disappeared. In an interview with Foreign Policy in Washington last week, Nyamitwe insisted journalists were not being intimidated by Burundian authorities and those who have fled to Rwanda may have done so either because they were supporting the opposition or feared the onslaught of violence just like regular, non-journalist citizens.

“People are saying journalists have difficulties to work in Burundi,” he said. “Some journalists have fled the country, some journalists are in Rwanda, but the majority of journalists are in Burundi.”

But Steers, who has visited Burundi five times since May, said risks have increased even for international journalists. Her most serious concern, however, is for her Burundian colleagues, drivers, fixers, and sources. Over the past eight months, she has noticed civilians have become increasingly reluctant to speak to the press for fear of government retaliation.

“Remy and Moore were lucky,” she said. “They had a very rough 24 hours and were unlawfully detained, but for Burundian journalists the detention would have likely been much longer.”

Sue Valentine, Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told FP in an email that Burundian officials need “to return all items in Philip Edward Moore’s and Jean-Philippe Remy’s possession to them immediately, and to stop harassing foreign and local media.”

“Closing radio stations and arresting foreign correspondents makes it look like the government has something to hide,” she added.

Their arrests came just two days before the African Union’s weekend summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where the AU is widely expected to move forward with the deployment of a peacekeeping force to Burundi. Nkurunziza’s has threatened he will treat peacekeepers like an invading army.

Remy and Moore were also arrested shortly before the release of an Amnesty International report that claims to prove Burundian authorities built mass graves to hide dozens of bodies the government allegedly killed on Dec. 11, Burundi’s bloodiest day since May. The report included satellite images to back up the claims about the mass grave sites, which Bujumbura denies.

In a tweet, Washington’s special envoy to the Great Lakes region Tom Perriello expressed concern the Burundian government was trying hide something from the independent press. Perriello met with Nkurunziza on Thursday morning, Burundian’s ambassador to Washington told FP.

On Friday, Nyamitwe tweeted back to Perriello to dismiss those fears.

“Nothing is hidden under the rug by #Burundi Gov’t,” tweeted Nyamitwe, who frequently engages in debates on social media. “But there’s a need to understand why journos were with terrorists.”

Photo Credit: Yvan Rukundo/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Correction, Jan. 30, 2016: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that 430,000 refugees have fled Burundi since April. The correct number is 237,000. 

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