There is hope and cautious optimism among Burundian media practitioners that the state of media freedom in the tiny East African country could improve post Pierre Nkurunziza. East Site writer Isaac Swila recently visited Bujumbura and paints the picture of how things are panning out in post Nkurunziza
Ten years ago, media analysts had predicted that Burundi would morph from a conflict ridden country to a beacon of hope in East Africa, with a flourishing and robust media, joining the likes of Kenya, which has been singled out in the Eastern African region for its vibrant media. These hopes were dashed in 2015 following a failed coup that opened the floodgates for the then regime of Pierre Nkurunziza (now deceased) to clamp down on media.
To stamp his authority and kick out dissidents, Nkurunziza came hard on the media, destroying several radio broadcast outlets such Radio-Télé Isanganiro, Bonesha FM as several journalists fled the country while some were arrested on trumped up charges.
In fact, a year before his death, Nkurunziza went hammer and tongs particularly on the foreign media, when his regime extended its ban on the Voice of America (VOA) and the British Broadcasting Corporation by refusing to renew their licenses. His regime also forbade journalists operating in the country from feeding either VOA or BBC with any information that could be used for broadcast, much to the chagrin and condemnation from the USA and the British governments, but he stood firm.
However, following Nkurunziza’s sudden death in 2020 and the coming into power of his successor General Évariste Ndayishimiye, 54, there is cautious optimism along the streets of Bujumbura, from the common folks and professionals alike. Hope that the state of media freedom could be headed for better times and journalists could finally have the freedom to practice without looking over their shoulders. That hope is not far-fetched if the assessment by both critics and analysts of how his regime has performed since he took over the reins of power is anything to go by.
”This hope is much more reassuring because the government has already shown the willingness to work with the media by drawing the line to be able to reopen radio stations which were suspended in 2015,” Onesime Harubuntu, president of the Burundian Association of Broadcasters (ABR) said early this year, in reference to the media policy adopted by Ndayishimiye.
Key among Ndayishimiye’s positive approach to media is his announcement in 2022 that the government was willing to allow press freedom. He followed this pledge by directing the National Communication Council (CNC) to dialogue with the heads of the closed or suspended media houses to find a solution. This announcement culminated in the release of four reporters in December 2020, five months after he came to power. Since then, there has been no arrest of journalists or shutdown of any media outlet, a trend Marie Chantal Nijimbere, the Minister of Communication, ICT and Media says will continue but is urging the media to play its role “responsively and objectively”.
Addressing media stakeholders, scholars and researchers during the fourteenth edition of the East Africa Communication Association (EACA) conference held in Bujumbura in August 2022, Chantal, 39, said that she “was proud” of the progress Burundi is making and the work that the media continues to play to advance democracy, openness and good governance in the region.
“As we gather here to deliberate, I would urge the media to play its watchdog role with objectivity and impartiality,” she said. “The media plays a big role in development and good governance. We are partners and we will support you and open our doors for idea exchange.”
Compared to the rule of the late President, Nkurunziza, media practitioners are in agreement that “there is some good effort” towards improving press freedom. Aita Clarrette, a participant in the congress and third year student at Université Lumière de Bujumbura argues that the situation has improved, but more can still be realized.
“There are no arrests and journalists can now practice freely, we haven’t had or experienced intimidation,” she told East Site. Her views are shared by Ferdinand Nzosaba, a media practitioner who in his research paper points out that a number of factors such as poverty, low literacy levels, lack of adequate funding and weak regulatory and policy framework, have impeded the work of journalists, thereby undermining the growth and expansion of the media.
Nzosaba also cites harsh government policies and the advent of Covid-19 which ravaged newsrooms, making journalists jobless, as some of the factors undermining press freedom as journalists and media houses are left vulnerable.
Remarkably, under Ndayishimiye, Burundi has made major improvement in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) press freedom index, jumping from position 147 in 2021 to position 107 in 2022, a major feat for a country whose previous regimes have been intolerant to criticism.
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