The Republic of Burundi is a constitutional, multiparty republic with an elected government. The 2018 constitution, promulgated in June following a May referendum, provides for an executive branch that reports to the president, a bicameral parliament, and an independent judiciary. In 2015 voters re-elected President Pierre Nkurunziza and elected National Assembly (lower house) members in elections boycotted by nearly all independent opposition parties, who claimed Nkurunziza’s election violated legal term limits. International and domestic observers characterized the elections as largely peaceful but deeply flawed and not free, fair, transparent, or credible. There were widespread reports of harassment, intimidation, threatening rhetoric, and some violence leading up to the referendum and reports of compulsion for citizens to register to vote and contribute financially to the management of the elections planned for 2020.
Civilian authorities at times did not maintain control over the security forces.
Human rights issues included unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government; forced disappearances by the government; torture by the government; arbitrary arrest and politicized detention by the government; prolonged pretrial detention; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; threats against and harassment of journalists, censorship through restrictive legislation, internet site blocking, and criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive nongovernmental organization (NGO) laws; restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation, including elections that were not found to be genuine, free, or fair; corruption; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence against women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons, minority groups, and persons with albinism; criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct; and use of forced or compulsory or worst forms of child labor.
The reluctance of police and public prosecutors to investigate and prosecute and of judges to hear cases of government corruption and human rights abuse in a timely manner resulted in widespread impunity for government and National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) officials.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press but ban “defamatory” speech regarding the president and other senior 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 including those critical of the government or the human rights situation in the country. Journalists and outspoken critics reported harassment and intimidation by security services and government officials. Social media networks, primarily Twitter and WhatsApp, served 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 conviction of insulting the head of state. Some journalists, lawyers, NGO personnel, and leaders of political parties and civil society stated the government used the law to intimidate and harass them.
Press and Media Freedom: The government owned and operated daily newspapers in French and Kirundi, Le Renouveau and Ubumwe, and a radio/television station, Burundi National Television and Radio. 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 that was generally critical of the government and its policies, continued to publish articles in French and English. The family of an Iwacu journalist who disappeared in 2016 reported that it received death threats throughout the year.
The National Communications Council (CNC) required Iwacu to close the comments section of its website and Le Renouveau to suspend publication of advertisements in English, in both cases stating that the publications’ contracts with the CNC did not allow such activities. The CNC later rescinded the suspension of Le Renouveau’s English advertisements following the negotiation of a revised contract. On October 12, the Ministry of Justice announced the suspension of the generally progovernment online news outlet Ikiriho in connection with a criminal complaint; subsequent media coverage indicated the complaint stemmed from alleged defamation of a Burundian employee of Kenya Commercial Bank.
In September 2017 the 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 a failed coup. Radio Bonesha continued to operate a website and RPA continued to broadcast into the country from Rwanda.
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 in 2015, the government invoked the law to intimidate and detain journalists. In September the government passed a law to regulate accreditation of journalists, by increasing the prerequisites to include minimum requirements for education and prior experience. 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 during and after the political crisis and crackdown in 2015; most had yet to return, citing threats to their safety. Several media outlets stated 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 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 August 27, three journalists were attacked by police in a rural area while researching a land dispute between residents and the local government. The journalists reported that police prevented them from conducting their work, physically beat them, and confiscated their equipment. The CNC released a statement criticizing police actions.
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. 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. 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. 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.
In May, just weeks before the constitutional referendum, the CNC levied a six-month suspension on two international media outlets, including the British Broadcasting Corporation, citing the outlets’ decision to publish “biased” information “contrary to the rules of the [journalistic] profession” and to employ journalists the government claimed were subject to Burundian arrest warrants. At the same time, the government issued a formal warning to several other outlets, including Radio France Internationale, although their broadcasts continued.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law prohibits the public distribution of information that exposes a person to “public contempt” and carry penalties of prison terms and fines. Conviction 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 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 for conviction range from two months’ to three years’ imprisonment and fines. Some journalists, lawyers, and leaders of political parties, civil society groups, and NGOs stated 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 to inhibit freedom of expression. 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 July the CNC announced it would consider lifting the suspension of the two international media outlets suspended in May, provided representatives of the outlets traveled to Burundi for negotiations with the council. The CNC had taken no further action as of October.
The government sometimes restricted or disrupted access to the internet or censored online content. According to the International Telecommunication Union’s 2017 survey, 5.6 percent of residents used the internet. Some citizens relied heavily on social media platforms WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook on both internet and mobile telephone networks to get information concerning current events. There were no verifiable reports the government monitored email or internet chat rooms. Several journalists expressed feeling generally freer in their reporting online than in radio and other media more closely controlled by the government. Several radio stations that were closed after the failed coup continued to publish radio segments and articles online.
Some media websites were occasionally unavailable to internet users in the country. Publications affected included the newspaper Iwacu and also the online publication Ikiriho, prior to its suspension in October by the Ministry of Justice. 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.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The constitution and law provide for freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government severely restricted this right (see section 1.d.). The law requires political parties and large groups to notify the government with details prior to a public meeting and at least four days prior to a proposed demonstration, and allows the government to prohibit meetings or demonstrations for reasons of “public order.” When notified, authorities in most cases denied permission for opposition members to meet or demonstrate and dispersed meetings already underway. By contrast, supporters of the CNDD-FDD and government officials were regularly able to meet and organize demonstrations on short notice; these demonstrations were frequently large and included participation by senior officials.
Freedom of assembly was significantly restricted in the wake of the failed coup attempt in 2015, and these restrictions largely remained in place, with some notable exceptions. Members of the wing of the nonrecognized FNL-Rwasa and the Amizero Y’Abarundi coalition of independents stated that government officials harassed or arrested supporters for holding unauthorized meetings. Other political parties generally reported being unable to hold party meetings or conduct political activities outside Bujumbura, except during the official campaign period before the May referendum. Some opposition party members cited greater leeway, however, to conduct political meetings, such as party conferences than in the preceding three years. In September the FRODEBU-Sahwanya party conducted a congress in Bujumbura followed by a series of meetings in regions around the country; however, the party continued to be unable to conduct public events outside of Bujumbura.
During the official May 1-14 campaign period before the referendum, the Amizero Y’Abarundi coalition of independents led by Rwasa and some other opposition parties conducted large rallies throughout the country to publicize their opposition to, and advocate for votes against, the proposed constitutional changes. The events were widely publicized in media sources, through social media, and online, and there were no apparent constraints on Rwasa’s public discourse, which was critical of the government. There were some reports that individuals attending rallies subsequently faced arrest or harassment by government officials, security services, and members of the Imbonerakure.
Outside of the official campaign period, opposition actors continued to be restricted from conducting most political activities, and members of the Imbonerakure and security services arrested, harassed, and in some cases committed violence against individuals they alleged opposed passage of the referendum. Although government officials stated that restrictions on political speech outside of the campaign period were consistent with the Burundian Electoral Code, no such limitations were applied to government officials and members of the CNDD-FDD party, who between December and May conducted numerous events and media appearances, during which they promoted the referendum and the proposed constitutional changes.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for freedom of association within the confines of the law, but the government severely restricted this right.
In January 2017 the government enacted a law constricting the liberties of international NGOs. The law includes requirements that international NGOs deposit a portion of their budgets at the Bank of the Republic of Burundi and that they maintain ethnic and gender balances in the recruitment of local personnel. The law contains several clauses that give the government considerable control over NGO selection and programming. In November 2017 an international NGO was instructed to suspend its agricultural programs due to a disagreement with the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock on program design; in September the NGO was reinstated following lengthy negotiations with the government. In December 2017 another international NGO was expelled for allegedly distributing rotten seeds.
On September 27, the government’s National Security Council announced a three-month suspension of international NGOs as of October 1. On October 2, the minister of the interior clarified that the government was suspending their operations until the NGOs provided documents demonstrating compliance with the country’s NGO and banking laws. The minister required NGOs to submit a copy of their cooperative agreement with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a memorandum of understanding with the appropriate technical ministry, a certification of compliance with banking regulations, and a plan to comply with the law’s ethnic and gender balances within three years. He stated that the ministry would review the files of each NGO as soon as it received their submissions, but that NGOs failing to provide documents within three months would be closed. Many organizations viewed the suspension as a politically motivated restriction on civil space. The suspension had an immediate and significant impact on NGO operations, including on the provision of basic services. Some international NGOs were allowed to continue medical and education programs during the suspension. As of mid-November the government had lifted the suspension on 38 NGOs, while the majority were either awaiting response to their compliance documents or still in the process of completing them.
In January 2017 the government also enacted laws governing domestic CSOs. The law requires CSOs to register with the Ministry of the Interior (or with provincial governments if they operate in a single province), a complex process that includes approval for an organization’s activities from the Ministry of the Interior and other ministries depending on their areas of expertise. There is no recourse when authorities deny registration. Registration must be renewed every two years. The law provides for the suspension or permanent closure of organizations for “disturbing public order or harming state security.”
In 2016 the government permanently banned five CSOs that it claimed were part of the political opposition. In 2016 the government announced its intention to ban Ligue Iteka, the country’s oldest human rights organization, for “sow(ing) hate and division among the population following a social media campaign created by the International Federation of Human Rights and Ligue Iteka in which a mock movie trailer accused the president of planning genocide.” The ban took effect in January 2017; Ligue Iteka continued to operate from Uganda and report on conditions in Burundi. At year’s end there were no further reported closings of domestic CSOs.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government severely restricted these rights.
The government generally cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
In-country Movement: According to several news sources, the government enforced the use of “cahiers de menage,” booklets that listed the residents and domestic workers of each household in some neighborhoods of the capital. In numerous instances police arrested persons during neighborhood searches for not being registered in household booklets. Persons who attempted to cross the border to flee violence and reach refugee camps were sometimes stopped and turned back by police, the SNR, or Imbonerakure members. Stateless persons also faced restrictions on movement, because in addition to lacking identification documents, they may not apply for driver’s licenses and may not travel freely throughout the country.
The government strongly encouraged citizens to participate in community-level work projects every Saturday morning and imposed travel restrictions on citizens from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Authorities required permits for movement outside of one’s community during those hours, and police enforced the restrictions through roadblocks. There were reports that members of the Imbonerakure compelled individuals to engage in community work. Persons could obtain waivers in advance, and persons performing physical exercise were generally considered exempt. Foreign residents were exempt.
During the February 8-17 voter registration period organized by the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI), government officials, members of the security services, and members of the Imbonerakure pressured citizens to register as voters. In some instances this pressure included denial of freedom of movement to citizens who did not provide proof of registration, including denial of access to market areas. In July, as the government sought what it termed “contributions” from citizens, there were also reports that citizens who did not demonstrate proof of payment faced restrictions on freedom of movement from members of the Imbonerakure and local officials.
Local governments established checkpoints on roads throughout the country on a widespread basis officially for the collection of transit taxes on drivers and passengers; the checkpoints were often manned by police or members of the Imbonerakure. Checkpoints were also established for security purposes. There were frequent allegations that those staffing the checkpoints sought bribes before allowing vehicles to proceed. In some instances members of the Imbonerakure were accused of using the checkpoints to deny free movement to individuals for political reasons, such as failing to demonstrate proof of voter registration or proof of contributions for the funding of elections, for refusal to join the ruling party, or for suspicion of attempting to depart the country in order to seek refugee status.
Foreign Travel: The price of a passport was 235,000 Burundian francs ($133). Authorities required exit visas for foreign nationals who held nonofficial passports and who did not hold multiple-entry visas; these visas cost 48,000 Burundian francs ($28) per month to maintain. The majority of foreign nationals held multiple-entry visas and were no longer subject to this requirement. Stateless persons may not apply for a passport and may not travel outside the country.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) counted approximately 151,520 IDPs as of September. According to the IOM, 74 percent were displaced due to natural disasters while 26 percent were displaced for political or social reasons. Some IDPs reported feeling threatened because of their perceived political sympathies. Some IDPs returned to their homes, but the majority remained in IDP sites or relocated to urban centers. The government generally permitted IDPs at identified sites to be included in programs provided by UNHCR, the IOM, and other humanitarian organizations, such as shelter and legal assistance programs.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has a system for providing protection to refugees.
UNHCR estimated 68,748 refugees were in the country as of September, with a further 5,148 in the process of seeking asylum. Of the refugees, approximately 68,200 were Congolese, including arrivals during the year; 4,371 of those in the process of seeking asylum were also Congolese. Continuing violence in the DRC prevented their return. Efforts to resettle Congolese refugees in third countries, begun in 2015, continued.
Employment: The employment of refugees was subject to restrictions. The government is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Related to the Status of Refugees and 1967 Protocol on the Status of Refugees, but with a reservation regarding the employment of refugees that meant Burundian nationals had preferred access to employment opportunities. In 2016 the government committed to lifting these reservations, but as of October had not taken steps to do so.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees residing in camps administered by the government and the United Nations and its partners received basic services. The large percentage of refugees residing in urban areas also accessed services, such as education, health care, and other assistance offered by humanitarian organizations.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees and provided it to approximately 4,400 persons during the year. These individuals were primarily Congolese who crossed into the country from Lake Tanganyika in order to avoid fighting on the Fizi peninsula in January and did not subsequently seek refugee status but returned to the DRC during the year.
According to UNHCR an estimated 974 persons at risk of statelessness lived in the country. All were from Oman, were awaiting proof of citizenship from the government of Oman, and had lived in Burundi for decades. Most of those who remained at risk of statelessness had refused an offer of Burundian citizenship from the government if they could not get Omani citizenship. Stateless persons face limited freedom of movement because they were ineligible for driver’s licenses and passports.