Should this be seen as a real gesture of appeasement or a simple communication strategy? On Thursday 28 January, President Evariste Ndayishimiye addressed media officials in a way not seen since he took over the country last June.
Comparing the media to “children like any other” of the “benevolent state”, he called on the National Communication Council (CNC) to open, “as soon as possible”, a dialogue with the media. “It is important to find a solution to our previous differences. Media networks have been either sanctioned or suspended. The CNC must sit down with the directors of these networks so that a solution can be found and this dossier can be closed. We must get to work,” he said.
This announcement had been communicated on government social media with the hashtag #NeverWithoutMedia. It had surprised Burundian and international professionals of the sector who had been attending a workshop at the Kiriri Garden Hotel since the day before on “the role and responsibility of the media in the development of the country, the safeguarding of social cohesion and the protection of human rights.”
“A step in the right direction”
Télé Renaissance, the privately-owned African Public Radio (RPA, whose premises had been destroyed during the 2015 crisis) and the Burundian Union of Journalists (UBJ) cautiously welcomed this “step in the right direction.”
In a joint statement, Innocent Muhozi, the director of Télé Renaissance, Bob Rugurika, director of the RPA and Alexandre Niyungeko, president of the UBJ, said they were “ready to engage in dialogue to restore freedom of the press in Burundi.”
They warned, however, that it “could not be restored in the current situation, where freedoms and rights do not exist,” deeming that “a comprehensive and inclusive dialogue with all actors of Burundian society is essential to restore public freedoms.”
“Let’s not forget that the BBC and VOA radio stations have been suspended. If this call concerns all media, including those in exile, we are ready to respond,” Muhozi told us. “Have the conditions to ensure a free press been met? Will the media be able to report on all news, even news that doesn’t please the authorities? Will independent civil society be able to do its work freely and denounce, for example, human rights violations?” he asked, mentioning, among the conditions necessary for dialogue, “the safety of those returning and the lifting of arrest warrants for some of us.”
Recalling the release, on 24 December, of the four Iwacu journalists who were arrested in October 2019, RSF for its part welcomed “encouraging signs for journalists in the country”, while stressing that “the stakes remain high, [including] the restoration of a climate of trust between the independent media and the administration.”
An “initial contact”
While extending his hand to the media, Ndayishimiye simultaneously defined the role of journalists, who – according to him – “have a capacity of nuisance proportional to their ability to positively and effectively influence their environment, on the development of the country.” He asked that “these media networks pledge to participate in the development of the country.”
A sign that there is still a long way to go was the fact that at the first meeting convened by the TNC to lay the foundations for this future dialogue, no representatives from media networks that had been exiled were invited.
In addition to the BBC and VOA, four Burundian bodies were present: the Iwacu press group, the online newspapers Ikiriho and Nawe, as well as the Bonesha FM radio station, represented by its director, Léon Masengo.
“It was not my responsibility to invite the media networks that have been exiled,” said Nestor Bankumukunzi, the president of the CNC, at the end of these exchanges which were only an “initial contact.” “Discussions will continue with each media organisation individually, during which we will resolve issues, if any, relating to justice,” said Bankumukunzi.
The issue of sanctions
This opening of dialogue comes at a time when relations between the Burundian authorities and the EU are improving. After a first meeting on 27 January, the EU representatives and the Burundian authorities met again soon after on Tuesday 2 February.
Albert Shingiro, the Burundian foreign affairs minister, met the EU ambassador, Claude Bochu, as well as diplomats from European countries in Bujumbura (Germany, Belgium, France and the Netherlands). At the centre of the discussions were the economic sanctions that the EU had imposed on the Burundian government during the Nkurunziza era, due to the “serious human rights violations” that were being committed at the time.
“Where there is a will, there is a way”, said Bochu at the end of the meeting, without giving more details on the content of the discussions. “We can’t drag our feet anymore. We have to conclude this dialogue as soon as possible,” said Shingiro.
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