Author: Dr. Rich Quinlan
January 23, 2024
During the almost fifteen years in which Pierre Nkurunziza was the leader of Burundi (2005-2020), access to a free press and international news organizations within the nation became increasingly limited. While some of those restrictions have softened, including the reinstatement of the BBC within Burundi, the country remains a nation that does not embrace freedom of the press or the protection of journalists. According to its 2023 World Report, Human Rights Watch notes that, “Human rights organizations in Burundi are restricted in their ability to work freely or independently”, particularly when journalists report on government corruption. Burundi is a tiny nation in the Great Lakes region of Africa that is in dire need of reform throughout its society. The country is currently listed as both the poorest nation in Africa and the world, as detailed by World Population Review, and continues to restrict the human rights of many of its citizens, including journalists. Burundi is a perplexing country that is lessening some restrictions upon foreign news agencies, yet not offering liberty to reporters within its borders. Desíre Nimubona is a long-serving journalist within Burundi who struggles to maintain his own independent news agency. He has endured financial strife, resignations by writers, and, most frightening of all, attacks upon those who share his vision of a free and truthful press within Burundi. Desíre and I exchanged questions and answers about the state of journalism in his homeland and if he imagines a more progressive Burundi ever becoming a reality.
Nimubona’s interest in defending human rights was sparked early in his life through watching his father aid those less fortunate in their neighborhood. He related this story from his youth, “On my 14th birthday, he [Desíre’s father] gave me a radio and books and urged me to do journalism and defend human rights. That is how I started my human rights and media profession. There is a need in the country to do what is right, such as preventing some crimes [from being] committed and giving the floor to some people who need to make their voices heard. I love being helpful to people instead of being shameful.”
If corruption is to be exposed anywhere in the world, bold independent journalism is necessary. Understanding this, Nimubona noted that the current president, Evariste Ndayishimiye, discussed his desire to alleviate corruption in his government. This cannot happen without journalists exposing the unpleasant reality of Burundian politics. Desire noted, “there is the need [for] democracy, credible elections, economic growth, technology discoveries, and many more on the other hand. This triggers a need [for] an independent journalism that can have a look on both challenges. The president cannot be everywhere at the same time. He can rely on independent journalism for example to know where people are stealing public funds.” On a broader scale, Nimubona celebrates the need for honest journalism by saying, “We are living [in a] world where human rights are violated, where wars are [wreaking] havocs. It is up to journalists to expose what is happening and to the military to fight the wars. For human rights defenders, it is the same, you don’t need to be a public figure to defend someone”.
Many reporters in Burundi are uneasy about their future for good reason. The words coming from the president’s office in Gitega and the reality on the street appear to be different realities. When Pierre Nkurunziza died in 2020 apparently from Covid-19, an illness for which he denied any international vaccine aid (becoming the second to last African nation to accept vaccines, with only Eritrea refusing for a longer period of time), there was uncertainty about the incoming leader Evariste Ndayishimiye. To many, he was a potential continuation of the Nkurunziza presidency. However, as Nimubona mentions, “In the first days of his presidency, Evariste Ndayishimiye summoned the press and assured them that no one could be harmed [during] his presidency. He also freed jailed journalists and made some additional efforts to assure the press and make them forget the past. However, the press and media professionals need more than that.” Nimubona went on to explain that speeches will not be enough to alleviate the fears and concerns of journalists, saying that those striving for a more transparent media need to see action from the government. “You cannot fight corruption when the press is not free, he said.”
The independent writer goes on to discuss the continued disquiet concerning journalistic safety, saying, “The problem here is that media professionals aren’t 100% sure of their security. They haven’t seen any efforts to bring to [justice] those who [mistreat] the media. Some live with psychological wounds following what they experienced in the past. They are not the only ones to live [through] that. Burundi’s citizens were traumatized by the past that was violent and that went unpunished. Perpetrators of many crimes including genocide are free.”
There are extraordinary risks that Burundian journalists continue to face, despite the language of the current administration. Conditions may have improved over the past three years, but there is still a tangible fear among those merely trying to report the truth. Nimubona expressed this reality by explaining, “There are so many risks which are linked to what I am doing. As a journalist that exposes wrongdoing, you always expect some negative feedback. Wrongdoers here in Africa, especially in Burundi, can hit a journalist because we are not well protected. The causes are that some corrupt police officers, officials and others will not raise [a] finger to protect a journalist.” Nimubona is well aware of the reputation his nation possesses concerning human rights and personal freedoms. He is among those working to improve Burundi’s standing on the world stage, but understands the many struggles involved. He notes, “Our countries [countries in the Great Lakes region] sometimes are ranked among those who don’t protect journalists. This is the reason why while working here, you expect anything to happen. Beside my journalism career, I am among those who are defending a whole quarter in my neighborhood as a group of crooks want to oust more than 600 families from their homes. I am also helping a cousin who was raped by a well-known rapist. So, you see that I need support for this. Because I can be hit by anyone.”
While many of his words are chilling, Nimubona also speaks with optimism about Burundi’s journalistic future. In 2015, many international news agencies and NGOs were driven out of Burundi with their microphones silenced and their doors closed. This appears to be changing now, as Desíre points out, “There is a hope, even though things are not moving [at] a good speed. I have worked in various countries where security was lacking, and I can’t say that Burundi is Hell. We have more than 3,000 media professionals working from Burundi. We have more than 150 media professionals working for international media from Burundi, and we learned that Burundi was discussing with BBC and VOA to re-allow these media that were banned in the aftermath of the 2015 political turmoil”.
He goes on to celebrate Burundi’s ongoing, yet measured change by saying, “It is the first time we see a president who admits errors of his own political party and wants to change them. It is the first time we see a president who openly accuses colleagues of his party of being involved in mismanagement, embezzlement and other crimes until some of them are jailed. People who violate human rights now fear they can meet presidential anger. For the first time in Burundi history, the president invites people to denounce those who harass others among the officials, who violate their rights and who misuse public funds. It is a sign that things are changing even though the speed change is so small.”
It can be easy at times to attempt to craft a pleasing conclusion to a discussion involving human rights abuses by saying that the country responsible is changing, evolving, and improving. However, when one hears from a person on the ground that small steps are being taken to improve the quality of life for the journalists within Burundi, one must give credence to those words. The hope is that as Burundian leaders examine their country’s standing in the world, they will realize that greater governmental transparency and journalistic autonomy must be embraced if Burundi is to become a significant global force. Burundi is a nation of natural beauty and gracious people who deserve to live without fear of reprisal for merely asking questions about policy or pointing out corruption. It is obvious that Burundi has many miles to travel before they can be considered a truly free nation, but daring individuals such as Desíre Nimubona are attempting to drive the nation towards a brighter future.