Burundi frees detained foreign journalists. Can they do their job?

In the past, the African nation has forced media organizations to shut down and has driven some journalists into exile. 

Thomas Mukoya/Reuters/File
British photojournalist Phil Moore talks to members of United Nations (U.N.) security as he and other Kenya-based foreign journalists demonstrate against the imprisonment of three Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt, at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi. Burundi police have arrested Moore and a French journalist during a sweep for rebels in flashpoint districts of the capital, officials said on Friday, a move likely to further strain tense relations between Bujumbura and Western donors.

Officials in Burundi have released British and French journalists who were arrested on Thursday.

Le Monde’s Africa bureau chief Jean-Philippe Remy and freelance photojournalist Phil Moore were arrested Thursday during raids in the Jabe and Nyakabiga neighborhoods of Bujumbura, allegedly for accompanying armed criminals, Burundi officials said. The journalists were released Friday.

Moore and Remy have regularly reported from Burundi since the country descended into violence in April 2015.

In a statement, the paper said that both journalists had “valid visas and were merely exercising their professional duties by meeting all concerned parties involved in the current tensions in Burundi,” Time magazine reported.

The arrests came the same day Amnesty International released a report saying that hundreds of people killed by Burundian security forces during clashes in mid-December were buried in mass graves in Buringa area, on the edge of the capital Bujumbura.

Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty's regional director for East Africa, said the group obtained satellite images, video footage, and witness accounts that indicate a “deliberate effort by the authorities to cover up the extent of the killings by their security forces and to prevent the full truth from coming out," the BBC reported.

Burundi descended into violence last April after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his bid to seek a third term, despite term limits. The nation's constitutional court ruled in his favor, a decision that fueled additional violence. At least 430 have been killed, and 240,000 were forced to flee into neighboring countries, raising fears that the country could plunge back into another civil war.

Burundi has, in the past, cracked down on the press, forcing independent media to shut down and driving some journalists into exile. The country’s independent media had played a critical role in airing the street protests against the Mr. Nkurunziza's election to a third term as president. But the frequent targets and physical assaults sent many into fear, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“They didn’t show us the order they said they had from the prosecutor,” Alexandre Buja, the chairman of the union of journalists, who had set up a joint newsroom to gather information from various FM radios, told the Guardian. “They just started brutalising us. They beat some of my colleagues very badly and we finally had no choice but to oblige.”

The Human Rights Watch organization released a report this week saying that Burundi’s relentless crackdown on the media has “forced most of Burundi’s independent journalists and human-rights defenders to flee the country due to repeated death threats, threats of prosecution on trumped-up charges, and beatings,” [and that] “the government closed the four most popular private radio stations and suspended the activities and froze the bank accounts of 10 independent organizations."

“It is a real tragedy what is happening,” Buja continued to say. “When you shut down all avenues of independent expression, what you have is a dictatorship.”

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