Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Burundi Private Media Still Off-Air As Govt Investigates Coup Attempt
By Moses Havyarimana

Private media remains off air in Burundi four months after the attempted coup by a faction of the Burundi Army.

Burundi was plunged into an information blackout on May 13, as control of the airwaves took centre stage in the battle between loyalist forces and troops led by coup leader Gen Godefroid Niyombare.

While President Pierre Nkurunziza's loyalists prevailed, the majority of independent media continue to suffer the backlash from the failed coup.

Authorities in Bujumbura turned their attention to private media after supporters of the coup surrendered, forcing the few radio stations and TV networks still operational to stop broadcasting.

Several media outlets were burned down during the battle to control the capital, with the first casualty being Rema Radio, owned by the ruling party CNDD-FDD. Hours later, African Public Radio (RPA), arguably the biggest independent private station in Burundi, was bombed by alleged supporters of the government.

Ordered to close in April for promoting violence, RPA was back on air when the army rebels used it to announce President Nkurunziza's ouster.

The apparent attack on media perceived to sympathise with either side of the conflict left the country with only the state broadcaster, RTNB.

RTNB, which changed hands a few times between the two sides, proved to be the most decisive turning point in the war -- the loyalist forces ended the coup as soon as they took control of the broadcaster.

Two other private radio stations, Bonesha and Isanganiro were ordered to close by the authorities.

"The government is yet to tell us of what law we broke other than the fact that some officers announced the coup over private radio," said Atoine Kaburahe the managing director of the Iwacu online newspaper, adding, "We had no options when the army invaded."

Iwacu, one of the most prominent online news sites in Burundi, halted its operation for more than a week following increased attacks on the private media. The staff feared they could be next.

The government has remained hostile to private media since the coup attempt. Authorities are investigating the role of private media in the coups - with the condition that they will only go back on air if cleared.

The fear in Burundi media circles is that the government could deliberately drag its feet in the investigations. It is almost three months since the process started and very little has come of it.

"The regulatory body respects the country's judicial organ so we are still waiting for the outcome of these investigations, but we want the investigations to be conducted quickly so that those not found guilty can reopen their operations," said Ishar Giramahoro, chairperson of the National Communications Commission (CNC).

Mr Giramahoro said that the Ministry of Justice is handling the matter and those found not guilty will soon be allowed to freely operate.

"All media houses are treated equally here, both public and private," he added.

The media and journalists in Burundi continue to operate in a hostile political environment. Amnesty International has warned that the business of journalism in Burundi has become increasingly dangerous.

Reporters have been denied access to areas where the police is cracking down on anti-Nkurunziza protests, some have been attacked and others have been forced to flee the country.

A local reporter said a list of people perceived to be in support of the anti-third term movement, which includes journalists, was drawn up a few weeks ago.

He has told The EastAfrican that he has been trailed several times by authorities, forcing him to frequently change places of residence. He has since sought refuge in Uganda.

According to latest figures, more than 40 journalists have fled the country since the coup was foiled in May.

"A free press is a precondition for democracy, the absence of my colleagues is felt. I want them to come home," said the Iwacu newspaper manager. "It is sad to see 40 Burundian journalists in exile," he said.

However, silencing the media has proved to be a difficult undertaking for the government. As Bujumbura clamps down on mainstream media, newsmen have gone on to reach their audiences using various social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus.

"We can't just sit and keep quiet... we have to find other options to communicate and that is why we have to go online," said a journalist in Bujumbura.

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