Riot policemen walk outside the Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) broadcasting studio in the capital Bujumbura, April 26, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

A coup attempt and heavy fighting in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, are making headlines around the world, but many Burundians are still in the dark about what happened.  Some would like to keep it that way.
 
Yesterday, less than 24 hours after a group of military officers announced that President Pierre Nkurunziza was dismissed, people presumed loyal to the president attacked the country’s four most popular media outlets: Radio publique africaine (RPA), Radio Bonesha FM, Radio Isanganiro, and Radio Télévision Renaissance. Men in police uniforms threw a grenade at Radio Bonesha FM and shot at its broadcasting equipment, destroying it. Parts of RPA and Radio Télévision Renaissance have also been damaged. None of these stations can broadcast.
 
Burundi’s main independent newspaper, Iwacu, suspended operations after receiving warnings that if the paper continued publishing, it could face the same treatment.
 
At the other end of the spectrum, came reports that unknown persons attacked Radio Rema FM, close to the ruling party, after the coup attempt on May 13.
 
The media blackout has deprived Burundians of all independent national news sources. Burundians who live in the countryside – most of this predominantly rural population – don’t know what’s happening. They rely on international radio broadcasts, scraps of information, and rumors.
 
The state broadcaster, Radio Télévision Nationale du Burundi, is still on the air but had mostly been playing music. A brief speech by the president was cut short yesterday because of heavy fighting near the station.
 
Burundian journalists told Human Rights Watch they fear reprisals, since many are viewed by the president’s allies as sympathetic to the opposition. Many human rights defenders have also gone into hiding, fearing for their safety.  
 
This climate of fear has been building since demonstrations began on April 26 to protest Nkurunziza’s decision to stand for a third term. Now, with the military apparently divided and a breakdown of law and order, Burundians who spoke out against human rights abuses by the police, the intelligence services, and the ruling party’s youth league could be targeted.  
 
The coup attempt leaders and people loyal to Nkurunziza should not take out their political grievances on civilians, nor use the media or civil society as their battleground. Both sides should make every effort to protect all persons without distinction, and restore respect for fundamental human rights.
 
Those who ordered the attacks on the radio stations know the power of Burundi’s media. They know journalists will report on human rights abuses and take seriously their duty to inform the public. They think that when they deprive the country of news, they can act with impunity. But Burundi’s media will not be silenced for long. Journalists will come back and investigate what happened. Crimes will be revealed and the perpetrators eventually brought to justice.