The Burundian government desperately wants an overwhelming win in next month’s constitutional referendum that will enable the president to extend his term in office. To do this, it must present the image of unity in the country – and open debate and criticism are less than welcome.

Logo for Iwacu newspaper, "The voices of Burundi."

© Iwacu

As the referendum approaches, the government is brutally cracking down on suspected opponents and signaling clearly that those who do not register to vote in the referendum or who dare to vote “no” will face dire consequences. And that crackdown is widening. On April 11, Iwacu, a well-respected and widely read independent newspaper in Burundi, received a written decision from Burundi’s National Communication Council (CNC) announcing a three-month suspension of its online comments section for “violation of professional standards.”

The CNC is a national administrative authority responsible for overseeing the media and advising the government on communication. The president appoints its members.

Whereas criticism was once tolerated, albeit unhappily, any glimmer of hope that independent media and rights groups might operate freely in Burundi has vanished. The government has become increasingly intolerant of debate since a political crisis engulfed the country in 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his controversial bid for a third term.

Since then, independent national nongovernmental organizations have been banned, suspended, seen their bank accounts frozen and staff arrested. New restrictions have been placed on a once independent media, as several radio stations have been taken off the air. A journalist for Iwacu has been missing since July 2016.

Against this broader repression, Iwacu has managed to continue publishing, and it remains a source for independent news in Burundi and beyond, despite its thousands of readers now being unable to post their comments. In a statement, Iwacu said that its comments section was a “democratic space open to all opinions,” something clearly intolerable to an increasingly repressive government.