Dreaming of a Good Day: an Interview with Burundian Journalist Alexandre Niyungeko
In Burundi, which ranks 148 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders 2015 Press Freedom Index, civil liberties have become nearly nonexistent. The country’s most recent elections and a failed coup d’état against President Nukurunziza have resulted in chaos and violence. Independent news media were silenced, and violence fills the streets. At least 80 journalists have fled the country to avoid death threats, arrests, or prosecution on claims of treason.
Editorial intern Lindsay Bayne interviewed Burundian journalist Alexandre Niyungeko about his work as a journalist and what the government’s hostility towards the media means for its future. Alexandre is a radio and television journalist, as well as the founder and president of the Burundian Union of Journalists (UBJ). Weighted threats regarding his work in journalism and advocacy for freedom of expression in Burundi have recently forced him and his family to leave the country. He is currently living in hiding.
The interview was conducted via email correspondence and was translated from its original French by Lindsay Bayne.
How did you begin working as a journalist and advocate for freedom of expression? Where do you find the inspiration to continue your work?
I loved to listen to the radio from a young age. When I was in primary school I would imitate the journalists presenting the news. I am inspired by the seniors in my profession, trying to do as they have done or more.
In some of your recent interviews you have spoken of a journalist’s obligation to serve society and to inform the public. How is your work in improving conditions for the press in Burundi an extension of the work you do as a journalist?
I have campaigned a great deal and continue to fight for better working conditions for media professionals. I am notably invested in the fight against the Press Law of 2013, a retrograde and repressive law. On behalf of the Burundian Union of Journalists (UBJ), I have challenged this law before the courts, first before the Constitutional Court of Burundi and then before the Court of Justice of the East African Community, where our cause has proved successful. I have also initiated a dialogue with media executives to determine how to improve working conditions in their press organizations.
Are you ever afraid of the threats and attacks you might face, and are currently facing, as a result of your work? What motivates you to continue despite them?
As a human being, there are times where I fear these threats and attacks; it is precisely for this reason that I have now fled the country. But this will in no way prevent me from saying or doing what I believe, and therefore my profession. I am motivated in knowing that our profession possesses risks, and that there must be people to take on these risks for the benefit of general interest, on behalf of the public’s right to information.
Could you tell us about your recent situation of having to go into hiding? How has your relocation affected your life and your work?
Following the threats and attacks to which not only I, but also my family—my wife is a journalist as well—have been personally subjected to, we decided to leave the country after having passed a month in hiding. Life in hiding greatly affected me, and especially my children. For security reasons I could not see my family every day. In the beginning, I saw them once every three or four days. It became very difficult when I would spend an entire week without seeing them. I tried to call them regularly, but my three children (seven and a half, six years old, and three years old) could not understand why I could not come to see them. They are too little to understand. My work has also been affected because I could not get to my office; the agents of the National Intelligence Service [SNR] prowled about my home and office with the intention of “executing me.”
In your opinion, what will be the repercussions of the failed coup against President Nkurunziza and the tentative delay of the elections? What effects will these have on freedom of expression in Burundi?
The repercussions were the manhunt of all those who did not support the President’s candidacy for his third term. Many soldiers, and even civilians, were arrested and charged with conspiracy; others have fled the country to escape the arrests. The threats weigh heavy upon those remaining in the country, especially men in uniform. On the day of the communal and legislative elections, massive military and police participation in several areas was noted. The order given the day before stated that those who did not vote would be considered authors of the coup. Thus, there were some who participated for fear of reprisal.
One cannot speak of freedom of expression in Burundi following the denial of the right to information to the public; all of the independent radio stations have been reduced to ashes and the majority of journalists and staff forced into exile.
How will Burundi will move forward following the attempted coup d’état, particularly regarding the government’s alleged hit lists which have been said to likely include the names of journalists of the independent media? Do you believe that the relationship between the government and the journalists can be repaired?
It is clear that it will become very difficult for the independent media outlets to reopen in Burundi while Nkurunziza and his gang remain in power. Therefore, this relationship will never be restored to the status quo!
In a recent interview with IWACU, you said that though government leaders want to restrict freedom of expression, Burundi remains advanced in that it is one of the rare countries in which people can express themselves freely. (“Quoique nos dirigeants veuillent restreindre la liberté d’expression, le Burundi reste l’un des rares pays où des gens peuvent s’exprimer librement.”) How will recent events change this? Do you think people will be forced to find new forms of expression?
The current situation is not the same, with the destruction of the communication channels that were the destroyed radio stations. Despite everything, there are some who manage to express themselves through the few independent media outlets who remain in operation in the country or across the international media outlets picked up in Burundi, such as RFI, BBC, VOA, and France 24.
How do Burundian journalists and reporters navigate the risks they face, particularly in light of the media laws and the current situation in Burundi?
Many journalists (close to 50) have fled the country and found refuge in neighboring countries such as Rwanda, the DRC, Tanzania, and Kenya. There are also those who remain in the country, attempting to be cautious and remain in hiding. Others are regularly threatened and criticized because of the fact that they have other options available.
How have the media laws impacted your work? How have they affected Burundians’ access to information?
This law has greatly affected both the profession and the public. Certain journalists were called out by multiple prosecutors for not revealing their sources of information, and people in the media who spoke out were also persecuted by the government, the police, and the youth wing of the ruling party [the CDD-FDD], known as the Imbonerakure. Even the ruling party has released a document detailing certain medias as enemies of the country. In this situation, you will easily understand that access to information is very difficult.
What are your thoughts on the 2014 amendments to the media law? Specifically, could you share your thoughts on the provisions made to the clauses concerning the confidentiality of journalists’ sources? Have these improvements been enough, or is there more revision to be done?
Many positive amendments were made to the press law. But unfortunately, they have amounted to nothing because the law has remained as such. The President of the Republic has not promulgated the law containing the amendments, which is often the case.
Could you tell us about the recent marches and protests that the UBJ has organized? What impact are they having on freedom of expression in Burundi, and what are the UBJ’s greatest concerns at this time?
We have organized protests condemning the imprisonment of our colleagues Hassan Ruvakuki (in 2012) and Bob Rugurika (in 2015). Despite the interdictions, the threats, and the attacks made by police during these protests, we remained firm, and I believe that the protests greatly contributed to the release of our colleagues.
Our greatest concern today is the survival of journalists at this moment when the majority of independent media remains silent. We are equally concerned by the absence of credible and diverse information, depriving the public of their right to information despite the fact that it is recognized by the Burundian constitution and the various international measures that Burundi has ratified.
What are your current plans and hopes for the future of independent press in Burundi?
We will not stand idle. We continue to brainstorm ways and means to resume the profession within our means and limitations. We still hope to return to our country and resume our profession for the interest of the public. We constantly dream of a good day when we will meet again in our newsrooms, discussing the issues necessary for once again serving the Burundian public, who need it now more than ever. And we are confident that, sooner or later, this good day will come!