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Burundi: The disappearance of Jean Bigirimana

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Burundi: The disappearance of Jean Bigirimana

Three months after the journalist’s mysterious disappearance, many of his colleagues now assume the worst. Jessica Hatcher spotlights the dangers of working as a journalist in Burundi.

Iwacu launched their English-language news website on 19 July 2016. In a blog, Iwacu’s Director, Antoine Kaburahe, proudly announced the new service: “An information platform for all those who desire to know and understand the progress of Burundi.”

Three days later, however, Kaburahe’s optimism evaporated. On 22 July, the newsroom in Bujumbura, the capital, received a phone-call: “Your journalist was arrested,” a female voice said. She refused to identify herself, saying only that she was a friend of the journalist. “I don’t want to be drawn into this story,” she said before hanging up.

With a weekly newspaper as its flagship publication, Iwacu had first opened its doors in 2007. The brand soon gained a reputation for balanced reporting and cultivated a loyal readership, which includes government officials. Its reach, however, is tiny compared to that of Burundi’s radio stations, the reason, some suggest, it can continue to operate where others cannot.

During the coup attempt of May 2015, government forces attacked independent media buildings in Bujumbura with guns and rockets. The government accused the independent media of supporting the coup-plotters and promoting civil unrest. In the year since, national journalists have been beaten and killed, international journalists arrested, and media owners intimidated and bullied out of the country. Only Iwacu has survived.

Jean Bigirimana, 37, and married with two young children, is the Iwacu journalist who had allegedly been arrested. He had been working at Iwacu for two months, having been sacked from his previous job at Rema FM, a radio station known for its close ties to the President’s CNDD-FDD party. A trained lawyer, his boss, Kaburahe, describes him as quiet and hardworking.

Jean Bigirimana

A quarter of a million people have fled Burundi since April 2015, as violence over President Nkurunziza’s third term in office, which the opposition say is unconstitutional, has threatened to explode. Burundi’s security forces have carried out 348 killings in the 12 months ending April 2016, according to documents submitted to the UN’s Committee against Torture.

On the day of his disappearance, Bigirimana had been in Bugarama, a town 40km from the capital, to meet someone – but it is unclear who that person was. Diana Uwimana, 29, who heads Iwacu English, was just six days into her new job when she faced the daunting task of reporting on her colleague’s disappearance. Her lead story on Iwacu English’s home page on 25 July presented allegations that Burundi’s much-feared National Intelligence Agency had arrested Bigirimana and were holding him in an undisclosed location. The intelligence agency denies this.

When officials could give Bigirimana’s family and colleagues no further information, Iwacu journalists themselves scoured the hills and valleys around Bugarama looking for clues as to Bigirimana’s whereabouts.

On Sunday 7 August, from the banks of the Mubarazi River close to where Bigirimana allegedly disappeared, journalists spotted what looked like a body lodged in the muddy river. Two days later, on 9 August, members of the National Commission for Human Rights and civil protection police officers extracted not one but two bodies from the river, one weighted with stones and the other decapitated.
“Jean’s wife was only able to look at the corpses’ hands and feet, but said neither of them was Jean’s. The authorities made no further attempt to identify the victims or establish how they died,” a report by Human Rights Watch later said.

“These images have passed through my mind at night ever since that day,” Bigirimana’s wife, Godeberthe Hakizimana, told Iwacu. A week later, Bigirimana’s colleagues were outraged when Burundian authorities buried the bodies without conclusively identifying them.

“Working as a journalist has become very dangerous in Burundi because at any moment you may be arrested,” said Diana Uwimana, the head of Iwacu English.

A key problem she faces is that potential sources are too afraid to speak to her. “[People] think that it’s better to refuse to give you an interview, or they think they’ll be arrested if they agree to talk about what is wrong in their localities,” Uwimana says. Since the government enacted a controversial media law in 2013, Burundian journalists can no longer guarantee protection to their sources, and are forbidden to tell stories that could be seen to undermine national security. The new legislation was considered, “a tool to curb investigative reporting by using its sweeping terms to jail critics, upholding difficult professional requirements such as making all journalists have a university degree, and weakening the protection of sources,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said it set the nation back by 20 years.


“Light must be shed on what happened to Jean,” RSF urged in a statement on 7 September. Burundi fell eleven places in their most recent press freedom index, to 156th position among 180 nations worldwide.

 


Iwacu’s director, Kaburahe, told New African that he suspects two possible reasons for which loyalists might have wanted to kill Bigirimana. First, Bigirimana’s uncle is the former presidential spokesperson, Leonidas Hatungimana, now in exile in Belgium.

“Some people say he was killed to punish his uncle, like the killing of the son and son-in-law of Pierre Claver Mbonimpa,” Kaburahe said. “I don’t have any proof for that but it’s possible,” he added. A second reason is to send a message to Iwacu, he believes, “to push journalists towards self-censorship, to create fear.”

With a reputation for balanced reporting to uphold, Iwacu’s journalists continue to do their jobs as before. Only now they are in mourning, and wear black.

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