The Burundian government, evidently irritated by international condemnation of the crisis engulfing the country for the past year and a half, desperately wants the crisis to go away and the world to think all is peaceful in the country. So the government brutally crushes any form of dissent – real or imaginary.
That’s exactly what happened in the past few days when Interior Minister Pascal Barandagiye banned five Burundian nongovernmental organizations and suspended five others. Barandagiye said the banned groups had “tarnished the image of the country” and “sewed hatred and division in the heart of the population.”
The groups have repeatedly spoken out against government abuses. Last November, the government had suspended the activities and frozen the bank accounts of several of them, but stopped short of banning them outright. Now, the message is clear: If you cross us, you will suffer the consequences.
On October 24, the government also introduced new media restrictions, including forbidding national and international media from employing journalists who aren’t on a national media register. The moves come after officials arrested an American journalist and her Burundian fixer and driver on October 23. They were later released without charge.
The nongovernmental group ban and media punishment reflect a hardening of positions within the government and ruling party. Whereas once they tolerated criticism, albeit unhappily, any glimmer of hope that independent media and rights groups can operate freely in Burundi seems to have vanished.
In less than two years, the government has created a culture of paranoia. From farmers to civil servants, many are cowed with fear after hundreds of people have been killed and thousands arbitrarily imprisoned. In the past 10 days alone, several dead bodies have been found in various parts of the country – a phenomenon that has been a hallmark of the current crisis. In the past, journalists would have investigated these cases, but now they hesitate to dig too deeply and witnesses are afraid to speak out.
By banning human rights organizations and punishing media, the government has shown its hand: It wants human rights abuses to be hidden, not exposed. But the harder the government tries to hide these crimes, the more desire there will be by human rights activists to expose them. It is not so easy to silence the truth.