Burundi’s constitutional referendum campaign has been marred by violence as government security forces and ruling party members have intimidated, beaten, and killed perceived opponents. The government has tried to keep news of these abuses from the outside world.
Last Friday it doubled down on that effort, suspending the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Voice of America from reporting in the country before the critical final days of the scheduled May 17 vote.
A win in the constitutional referendum will allow President Pierre Nkurunziza – who has been in power since 2005 – to extend his term in office until 2034.
The government-controlled National Communication Council (CNC), Burundi’s media regulator, suspended the BBC for six months for “violating press laws” and “unprofessional conduct” after inviting a Burundian national to its program on March 12. It claimed his remarks were “inappropriate, exaggerated, non-verified and damaged the reputation of the head of state.” The CNC banned VOA for the technical reason that it was using a banned frequency.
The CNC warned French broadcaster Radio France Internationale that it could face consequences for recent remarks it deemed “untruthful and partisan,” and the Burundian station Isanganiro was criticized for apparently poor verification of sources.
Burundi previously had one of the most independent media environments in the region. But when Nkurunziza announced his bid for a contested third term in 2015, a crackdown on protests led to a serious political and human rights crisis and tightened restrictions on the media. Local stations were physically destroyed and a journalist went missing as Burundians, the majority of whom live in the countryside, turned to international broadcasts for information.
And now the government has turned to silencing some of these crucial international voices.
The CNC knows the power of the media. It recognizes that when the country is deprived of accurate news, then government security forces can act with impunity. As campaigning kicks off around the referendum, more violence can be expected, with Burundians increasingly in the dark, reliant on rumors and scraps of information. But the government can’t stop the networks of Burundians sending information to Burundian and international human rights groups. Even with all the radio stations in the country shut, crimes will ultimately be reported and those responsible eventually brought to justice.