The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press, but the government did not always respect these rights, and restrictions on freedom of the speech and press increased significantly following President Nkurunziza’s April announcement he would seek a third term in office.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: The law protects public servants and the president against “words, gestures, threats, or writing of any kind” that is “abusive or defamatory” or would “impair the dignity of or respect for their office.” The law also prohibits racially or ethnically motivated hate speech. The law mandates a penalty of six months to five years in prison and a fine of approximately 10,000 to 50,000 Burundian francs ($6.25 to $32) for insulting the head of state. Some journalists, lawyers, NGO personnel, and leaders of political parties and civil society alleged the government used the law to intimidate and harass them (see sections 1.d. and 3).
Press and Media Freedoms: Government-owned and operated Le Renouveau, the only daily newspaper, and Burundi National Television and Radio (RTNB), the sole television and radio station with national coverage, were the only news media allowed to operate uninterrupted during the year. The law prohibits political parties, labor unions, and foreign NGOs from owning media outlets and forbids the media from spreading “hate” messages or from using abusive or defamatory language against public servants acting in their official capacity that could damage the dignity of or respect for the public office.
In 2013 the government passed a media law that required journalists to reveal sources in some circumstances and prohibits the publication of articles deemed to undermine national security. Penalties for failing to observe the law were severe. In 2014 parliament revised the law, stripping it of some of its more draconian elements; however, during the year the government invoked the law to intimidate and detain journalists. On January 20, authorities detained journalist and Director of African Public Radio (RPA) Bob Rugurika for his refusal to name a source who had confessed on air to his participation in the murder of three Italian nuns in Bujumbura in September 2014; the source also implicated senior members of the security forces in the murders. On February 19, authorities released Rugurika; however, the charges against him remained pending at year’s end.
Violence and Harassment: The government detained or summoned for questioning several journalists investigating controversial subjects such as corruption and human rights violations or covering the anti-third-term movement. Journalists experienced violence and harassment, and a number fled the country by year’s end.
In November the Prosecutor’s Office twice summoned for questioning Antoine Kaburahe, director of the country’s only independent newspaper, Iwacu; the government alleged Kaburahe participated in the failed May coup attempt. Following his second summons, Kaburahe fled the country.
On April 27, the day after political protests began against the president’s decision to seek a third term, government officials, including Minister of Interior Edouard Nduwimana, attempted to shut RPA. Government officials scaled the walls of the RPA compound and accused the station of inciting insurrection for its coverage of the protests. Negotiators reached a compromise allowing RPA to continue broadcasting but prohibiting live coverage of the protest. On April 26, RTNB cut all independent radio stations’ access to its broadcasting towers, effectively preventing the interior of the country from receiving independent radio outlet broadcasts. On May 14, during fighting following the failed coup, unidentified attackers burned the four primary independent radio stations in Bujumbura and destroyed their equipment. Independent radio stations remained off the air at year’s end pending a Ministry of Justice investigation that barred journalists and owners from accessing the studios, which were considered crime scenes.
All original stringers and correspondents for a foreign official news service fled the country by year’s end in response to harassment and threats from government operatives or sympathizers, including threats delivered in person, via telephone and text, and a grenade attack. On June 5, unidentified assailants threw a grenade at the house of the family of Diane Nininahazwe, a foreign official news service reporter. The attack injured no one; it occurred after she had received threatening messages over several days. By year’s end the targeted foreign official news service engaged new stringers to continue reporting.
On August 2, a rocket attack killed former SNR chief Adolphe Nshimirimana. Journalist Esdras Ndikumana, covering the story for Radio France International (RFI) and Agence France Presse (AFP), was first on the scene. He photographed the damaged vehicles in the convoy until SNR made him stop. SNR detained Ndikumana for two hours, beating him with a variety of objects on the back, legs, ribs, soles of the feet, and hands. Ndikumana left the country for medical treatment. After more than a week, the government issued a statement promising to take internal measures to investigate, but at year’s end, it had taken no steps. Ndikumana, AFP, and RFI sued the government for damages in October.
Reporters Without Borders and local media outlets estimated 75 to 80 percent of the independent journalists fled the country due to growing threats from pro-government groups. Between 50 and 60 percent of the country’s journalists fled in May, and in October the outward flow resumed. Acts of intimidation and violence began to focus on the most influential journalists after the inauguration of the newly elected government in late August.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government censored the media and penalized journalists who published items critical of public servants and the president. Broadly construed laws against libel, hate speech, and treason caused a climate that fostered a high degree of self-censorship. Journalists working for the national broadcaster reported practicing self-censorship. Those who would not self-censor reportedly faced “reassignment” to jobs where they did not have access to the public.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel laws prohibit the public distribution of information that exposes a person to “public contempt” and carry penalties of prison terms and fines. The crime of treason, which includes knowingly demoralizing the military or the country in a manner that endangers national defense during a time of war, carries a criminal penalty of life imprisonment. It is a crime for anyone knowingly to disseminate or publicize false rumors likely to alarm or excite the public against the government or to promote civil war. It is illegal for anyone to display drawings, posters, photographs, or other items that may disturb the public peace. Penalties range from two months’ to three years’ imprisonment and fines. Some journalists, lawyers, and leaders of political parties, civil society groups, and NGOs alleged the government used these laws to intimidate and harass them.
In 2014 Leonce Ngendakumana sent a letter to the UN secretary-general on behalf of the opposition coalition ADC-Ikibiri to alert the international community to concerns about violence during Burundi’s election cycle during the year. Authorities charged Ngendakumana with libel, jeopardizing state interests, and inciting racial aversion. He defended himself in court by demonstrating that each point in his letter was factually true and, therefore, not slander. Authorities acquitted him of the first two charges but sentenced him to one year in prison and the payment of damages of one million Burundian francs ($625) each to the CNDD-FDD and Radio REMA FM. He appealed in December, but authorities set no date for his hearing. He remained at liberty pending his appeal hearing.
Nongovernmental Impact: The Imbonerakure, in spite of their links to a political party, collaborated closely with government security forces. In some cases, they were official members of Mixed Security Councils (comprised of police, local administration, and civilians), but at times they appeared to serve as irregular security forces carrying out the party’s agenda with the government’s resources. Journalists and human rights defenders accused Imbonerakure of acting as irregular security forces, following, threatening, and attacking individuals they perceived as opposition supporters.
On May 14, during the fighting associated with the coup, protesters burned the facilities of independent but progovernment Radio REMA FM. Like the other independent radios, authorities declared Radio REMA FM’s facilities a crime scene under investigation by the Ministry of Justice. Unlike the others, however, authorities completed the investigation, and by mid-fall Radio REMA FM was operational.
The government blocked the use of two or three social media applications on mobile networks for several days following the May 13 attempted coup. There were no verifiable reports the government monitored e-mail or internet chat rooms. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 5 percent of individuals used the internet. In the absence of independent radio, citizens relied heavily on WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook on both internet and mobile telephone networks to get information about current events.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
During the demonstrations in April and May, the government closed the national university as well as several private universities, fearing protesters were using campuses to coordinate the protests. The government canceled music concerts for fear of insurrection.