In Burundi, journalism is a risky profession. Few independent media can still work there. Iwacu is one of the last to maintain its publications … braving immense dangers. Since July 22, 2016, Jean Bigirimana, one of the editorial staff, has been missing. Burundian justice has still not elucidated this disappearance but, however, on Friday June 5, confirmed on appeal the sentence to two and a half years in prison and a 500 euro fine of four journalists fromIwacu.
Egide Harerimana, Christine Kamikazi, Terence Mpozenzi and Agnès Ndiribusa were arrested in October while investigating near the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) into clashes between the security forces and a rebel group. They were later found guilty of “attempting to complicity in the internal security of the state”.
In Burundi, the area of freedom has narrowed considerably and violence has returned to haunt the political scene since in 2015 President Pierre Nkurunziza forced the way for a third term. Without a foreign observer and in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the last elections were held in May in a climate of repression. They saw, not surprisingly, the victory of the candidate of the ruling party: General Evariste Ndayishimiye.
Exiled in Belgium after being accused of having supported an attempted coup, Antoine Kaburahe, the founder and director of publication ofIwacu, hope that the new elected official will be the man of change and of the reopening of Burundi.
How do you interpret the conviction on appeal of the four journalists ofIwacu ?
We were stunned by this decision because we had real hope, we thought that the judges would finally say the law. These four journalists did not commit any crimes. On October 22, they went to Bubanza after there was talk of a rebel raid from the DRC. They were there to do their job as journalists, but soon they were arrested by local authorities, who said that the situation was under control.
The arrest was violent. Christine [Kamikazi] was slapped by a police officer. They were taken to a cell, isolated for three or four days. We thought this was going to be resolved soon enough, but there were these charges of endangering the internal security of the state. In the first trial, the judges asked for a sentence of fifteen years in prison!
Were you expecting another decision from the judges due to the political change that has just taken place?
There is a new power, but Pierre Nkurunziza remains in office until August. We were hopeful because we thought we had convinced the judges that these journalists had not committed any crime. Freedom of the press is recognized in the Constitution of Burundi.
We could have been accused of an unbalanced or poorly written article, but this is not based on anything. I believe there was a will to make a blackout on this attack while we at Iwacu, we do not want to be content with official press releases as the only sources. For twelve years that we exist, we go on the ground, we investigate. We just do journalism. We thought the judges would understand this, but we finally saw a totally deaf justice which condemned four innocent people.
Now, will the arrival of a new president make a difference? We do not know anything. We are just disappointed. Since 2015, there has been work to destroy independent media. More than 100 journalists are in exile. Radios were destroyed, burned. The BBC and The Voice of America have been banned. Foreign journalists no longer have access to the country. Almost all the leaders of civil society are in exile. Burundi is in very bad shape. Look ! Me, my place should not be in Belgium but with my editorial staff, in Burundi.
What is the daily life of the members of your editorial staff who continue to work in Burundi?
We paid a very heavy price. There was Jean Bigirimana, who was kidnapped and whose body was never found. Threats are daily, as are insults on social networks. We deal with it. This situation obliges us to be solid on the practice of the trade. We verify all of our information because we know that an error will not be forgiven.
I had to flee in 2015, but the newspaper did not collapse. We continued in a hostile climate. We dare to give another bell in a country where the public media have become sounding boards of power. Everyday life is difficult. I try to find support when the advertising no longer follows. It’s complicated, but I can say that my colleagues who stayed are heroes.
The elections took place in May in a special climate, notably due to the Covid-19. If outside observers were absent, Iwacu was there. What did the journalists in your editorial office observe?
All the same, there was a completely unexpected drama, with this official proclamation by the Independent National Electoral Commission, which, 48 hours later, finally announced to the world that these results were only a draft. It’s ubiquitous! The Catholic Church, which had deployed observers on the ground, issued a very critical statement which cast doubt on the ballot. But what can a few hundred journalists do in a very complicated process to cover? I can just say that it is an election that raises questions.
The Church has finally congratulated the new elected official, the United States has declared itself ready to work with him, the Secretary General of the United Nations calls on all the parties to promote a peaceful atmosphere … Should this be seen as an encouragement for a change internally from the regime or the expression of weariness?
The diplomats are adapting to the situation. We saw it in the DRC. This time, there was no violence, which is often the dread of diplomats. The Burundian government often recalls that it is sovereign, that it used its own means, which is true: the Burundians contributed to finance these elections. We live in a claimed sovereignty and it is quite frowned upon that foreign diplomats, “colonists” to use a word very used at the moment in Burundi, meddle in Burundian internal affairs.
So what are these diplomats doing? They take note, a kind of union minimum which welcomes the fact that the Burundians voted calmly. Burundians, despite the climate of fear, have done their duty. Now I have the impression that there is a certain weariness, a spite and frustration. Many people think that their vote was not considered.
What do you think are strong signs of openness?
The first thing is to restore freedom. We had a vibrant civil society, the media that most African countries envied us. We had arrived at a climate of tolerance where the ethnic question became more and more outdated. The proof: today the political problem is not between Hutu and Tutsi, it is based on questions of alternation, social justice. We need to free people who are locked up for their ideas. These four journalists are a strong symbol of current injustice.
We must also reconnect at the international level. Burundi is a landlocked country which has terrible relations with its Rwandan neighbor. The outgoing president has just spent almost five years without leaving Burundi, without representing him in international meetings. We wanted a president who has the voice of the country, who is the ambassador of Burundi, not a walled president. Burundi must open up politically, economically, and the 400,000 Burundians who have taken refuge in Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania will return. We have immense challenges.
I want to return to Burundi, this is my country! I threw Iwacu in 2008 as a modest newspaper with five journalists. Today, we are a press group which publishes in French and in Kirundi, a web TV, a web radio, a publishing house. I want to share my experience, but you have to give hope. CNDD-FDD [l’ex-rébellion aujourd’hui au pouvoir] carried that hope. He took up arms to make a difference and many people supported this movement. I was one of them. I said to myself “finally”, because these people who came to power suffered from previous regimes, from one-party systems, from the massacres of 1972. We thought that these people were going to change things.
Do you think Evariste Ndayishimiye will be the opening man?
Will it be the break or the continuity? This is the question I cannot answer. I hope that after taking office in August, hope will be reborn.