The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press but ban “defamatory” speech about the president and other officials, material deemed to endanger national security, and racial or ethnic hate speech. Restrictions on freedom of speech and press increased significantly following dissent against the president’s 2015 announcement that he would seek a third term in office and government accusations of media complicity in the 2015 failed coup. These restrictions continued and were applied to press outlets critical of the government or the human rights situation in the country. Journalists and outspoken critics reported harassment and intimidation by security services or government officials. Social media networks, primarily Twitter and WhatsApp, serve as news outlets, often replacing traditional news outlets. Forces allied to the CNDD-FDD repressed media perceived as sympathetic to the opposition, including print and radio journalists, through harassment, intimidation, and violence.
Freedom of Expression: The Penal Code, passed in 2009, 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 10,000 to 50,000 Burundian francs ($5.65 to $28.35) 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.
Press and Media Freedom: The government owned and operated a daily newspaper, Le Renouveau, and a radio/television station, Burundi National Television and Radio (RTNB). The directors general of both outlets report to the Presidency. Rema FM, a CNDD-FDD radio station, also enjoyed support from the government, although it was technically independent. Radio Isanganiro was the country’s largest independent radio station. Iwacu, an independent newspaper, continued to publish articles in French and English that were critical of the government and its policies. The family of an Iwacu journalist who disappeared in July 2016 reported that it received death threats throughout the year.
Government reports identified 20 public and independent radio stations, four community radio stations, 24 periodicals, and 12 press associations operating in the country. After being closed in the aftermath of the failed coup in 2015, Radio REMA FM, Radio Isanganiro, Radio Humuriza, and Maison de la Presse were reauthorized in February 2016 and continued operating during the year.
On September 28, the National Council for Communication (CNC) announced a decision to withdraw the licenses of Radio Bonesha, Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), and Radio/Television Renaissance for breaches of their agreements with the CNC or for not abiding by content regulations. These three stations had been shuttered by the government in 2015 after unidentified men destroyed their broadcasting equipment following the failed coup in May 2015. Radio Bonesha continued to operate a website and RPA continued to broadcast into the country from Rwanda. In the same communique the CNC also announced the suspension for three months of CCIB FM +, a radio station operated by the Federal Chamber of Commerce of Burundi (CFCIB), following a broadcast including critical coverage of the government’s response to the killing of 39 Burundian refugees in the DRC by Congolese security forces. CFCIB appealed the suspension to the CNC and dismissed the station’s editor in chief; there were reports he subsequently fled the country after receiving threats. In December the CNC announced the six-month suspension of Radio Ntumbero for violations of its charter and suspended for one month the opinion section of the Igihe news site. The CNC also revoked the licenses of other radio or television stations because they did not begin broadcasting in a timely manner.
In 2013 the government passed a media law that required journalists to reveal sources in some circumstances and prohibited the publication of articles deemed to undermine national security. In 2014 parliament revised the law following journalists’ successful appeal to the East African Court of Justice. The court’s decision caused parliament to remove from the media law some of its more draconian elements. Following the failed coup of May 2015, the government invoked the law to intimidate and detain journalists.
Reporters who were able to continue working complained that government agents harassed and threatened media that criticized the government and the CNDD-FDD. Journalists had difficulty corroborating stories, as local sources were intimidated.
Violence and Harassment: The majority of independent journalists fled the country since the political crisis and crackdown in 2015; very few had returned, citing threats to their safety. Several media outlets alleged they received explicit threats that they would be closed if they published or broadcast stories critical of the government. The government detained or summoned for questioning several local and international journalists investigating subjects such as human rights violations, corruption, or refugees fleeing the country. Journalists experienced violence and harassment at the hands of security service members and government officials.
On April 5, intelligence agents interrogated Joseph Nsabiyabandi, the editor in chief of Radio Isanganiro about his alleged collaboration with Burundian radio stations operating in exile in Rwanda. In July 2016 unknown men abducted Iwacu reporter Jean Bigirimana. Police and the SNR denied that he was in their custody. As of October, Bigirimana’s whereabouts remained unknown. According to media reports, his spouse received several anonymous death threats after his disappearance and subsequently fled the country with her children.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government censors media content via restrictive press laws established by the CNC, an organization that is nominally independent but subject to political control in practice. In 2016 the CNC passed two decrees regarding media activity: one for domestic journalists and one for foreign outlets operating in the country. The first compels all journalists to register with the CNC annually. The second limits the access granted to international journalists and establishes content restrictions on the products disseminated by these outlets. As of October the government had not enforced these laws on a regular basis. Broadly interpreted laws against libel, hate speech, endangering state security, and treason also fostered self-censorship, including by journalists working for the national broadcaster. Those who did not self-censor reportedly faced “reassignment” to jobs where they did not have access to the public or were fired.
The CNC regulates both print and broadcast media, controls the accreditation of journalists, and enforces compliance with media laws. The president appoints all 15 members, who were mainly government representatives and journalists from the state broadcaster. According to Freedom House, observers regarded the CNC as a tool of the executive branch, as it regularly issued politicized rulings and sanctions against journalists and outlets.
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 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.
Nongovernmental Impact: Many members of the governing party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure, collaborated with government security forces. In some cases they were official members of mixed security councils, which comprise police, local administration officials, and civilians. Journalists and human rights defenders accused Imbonerakure members of acting as irregular security forces, using government resources to follow, threaten, and attack individuals they perceived as opposition supporters.
Actions to Expand Freedom of Expression, Including for the Media: In February 2016 the government announced it would allow two radio stations to resume broadcasting after their closure and destruction in 2015. As a condition for reopening, REMA FM (which supported the ruling party) and Radio Isanganiro (which was critical of the ruling party) were obliged to sign an agreement stating they would be “balanced and objective” and not threaten the country’s security. As of October both stations continued to operate.
According to the International Telecommunication Union’s 2016 survey, only 5 percent of individuals used the internet. Some citizens relied heavily on the social media platforms WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook on both internet and mobile telephone networks to get information about current events. There were no verifiable reports the government monitored email or internet chat rooms. One journalist reported harassment by security officials for the content of messages he composed on WhatsApp. Several radio stations that were closed after the failed coup continued to publish radio segments and articles online.
Beginning in late October, some media websites were occasionally unavailable to internet users in the country. Publications affected included the newspaper Iwacu, which was generally critical of the government, but also the generally progovernment online publication Ikiriho. There was no official comment on the outages; both the reason and mechanism remained unclear. In most cases the outages lasted a few days before access was restored.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were allegations that hiring practices, student leadership elections, and provision of grades at the University of Burundi were subject to political interference in favor of CNDD-FDD members.