Responding to threats to press freedom and the media in a time of crisis in Burundi

The outbreak of COVID-19 in the world in late 2019 has led to a dramatic loss of human lives across the world and caused an unprecedented impact on world economic structures, including the media. By December 2020, over 1.9 million people had died of COVID-19, and several dilemmas ushered in by the pandemic highly affected different sectors.

The media, which is believed to be the fourth estate, has acutely been affected in different ways including; arrests of journalists covering stories related to managing and handling the pandemic, closure of media houses, detention of journalists without trial, job security, pay cuts, physical assault, denial of access to information, insults, cyber harassment, torture, and court charges.

In Burundi, the first two COVID-19 cases were announced by the country’s Health Minister Thadée Ndikumana on the 30th of March 2020, and the media started covering the country’s strategies to fight the spread of the pandemic.

Although the media ought to play a big role in the fight against a pandemic, through sharing information, sensitization, and educating people more about the disease, many African states including Burundi, continued to harass the media by censoring their work, aiming at stopping journalists and the media from covering and reporting
stories related to COVID-19.

Burundi government then, led by the late President Pierre Nkurunziza denied the existence of the virus in the country and embarked on preaching ‘trust in God’ as one of the pillars of the government’s response to COVID-19.

The current president, Évariste Ndayishimiye, continuously accused journalists of inflating cases of COVID-19 in Burundi3. Bizimana and Kane, (2020) reported that during the COVID-19 pandemic period in Burundi, between 2020, and 2021, press freedom continued to deteriorate.

Journalists in Burundi were repeatedly threatened, and they worked in an atmosphere of tension and repression which compromised the coverage of the pandemic, making it difficult for local media to be critical of or indeed challenge the official narrative.

The harassment of journalists recorded during the pandemic in Burundi has been likened to the repeated crackdown on journalists and the press that happened in 2015, in Burundi (Maina & Simon, 2015).

During the first months of the outbreak of COVID-19, in March 2020, Burundian authorities refused to grant regular media updates about the pandemic situation, according to many journalists and media managers. That situation affected the right to free expression and access to information on COVID-19 in the country.

But the threats to independent journalism and the media did not emanate from the government alone. COVID-19 posed an existential threat to a media industry that was already under stress from the disruption unleashed by the digital revolution and the rise of social media as a major source of news for many people. In fact, fake news on the pandemic rose up and circulated very quickly, creating confusion.

Because the authorities in Burundi withheld information on COVID-19, Media houses and journalists were threatened if they covered such information. Misinformation, disinformation and the safety of journalists became key challenges in the wake of COVID-19.

Throughout the harsh times of the pandemic, journalists and the media in Burundi have been going through rough terrain while doing their work. Burundian journalists reported to be facing mainly four threats; the risk of prosecution and imprisonment, the lack of essential equipment to work safely, difficulty in accessing information from official sources—more so information related to managing of the pandemic, and the difficulty in accessing sources.

The challenges faced by the media houses according to the media managers are mainly related to the drop in circulation/audiences and advertising revenues. During the study period, media houses such as Iwachu Press Group, Rema FM Burundi, media, Siren Vibes TV, Buja FM, Radio Isanganiro, CCIB FM+, and Radio UMUCO FM reported having faced a decline in revenue.

Some media houses reported that they faced problems of loss of staff due to economic hardships to maintain them and some of them affirmed they failed to collect money from debtors.

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