Burundian journalist Jean Bigirimana has been missing since 22 July 2016. Multiple sources have told his employer, independent newspaper Iwacu, that he is in government custody. Authorities are denying these claims.
Iwacu, which represents a small beacon in Burundi’s notoriously difficult media environment, last week changed their website design to one that is entirely black and white, in homage to their missing colleague.
Burundi has been engulfed in political crisis since President Pierre Nkurunziza’s run for a third term last year, which sparked protests and citizen campaigns arguing that his candidacy undermined the Arusha Accords and Burundi’s constitution. Witnesses, victims, local activists and human rights organizations have all documented cases of arbitrary detention, systematic torture, and killings, targeting activists, journalists and Nkurunziza’s opponents, though government officials have denied this.
The country’s once lively media landscape has suffered from the militarized response to third-term opposition, especially outside the capital Bujumbura. Burundian and international journalists have faced accusations of anti-government bias or encouraging insurrection and been targeted with violence. Iwacu director Antoine Kaburahe himself currently lives in exile in Belgium.
Before coming to Iwacu, Jean worked with Rema FM radio station. Iwacu reports that in his travels to Rwanda, the 37-year-old reporter had written about the lives of exiled Burundian journalists living in the neighboring country. Rwanda and Burundi have a long history of political and diplomatic tensions.
On June 22, 2016, Jean left home after receiving a call from the national intelligence service. He has not been seen or heard from since. His wife, Godeberthe, made an emotional appeal for his freedom, and media outlets have tried to investigate and publicize the case, sharing images widely online.
Iwacu has vowed to continue searching for Jean. Iwacu journalists undertook their own investigations which they published online, and hope to take the case to court, though this may prove difficult given the crisis and the many other uninvestigated deaths and disappearances. Burundian rights organization APRODH recently reported that police and military sources, unhappy with the current situation, have identified 14 mass graves, likely containing some of the disappeared.
During their enquiries, two tortured bodies were found and eventually collected by police. When Jean’s wife was brought to identify the bodies she said neither was him, although they were then reportedly buried without being identified.
Police spokesperson Pierre Nkurikiye confirmed that neither of the two was Jean:
The news raised concerns among citizens not only about Jean, but about other possibly undiscovered bodies. Twitter user Thierry Uwamahoro asked:
Eleven days after Jean’s disappearance, Iwacu criticized the police for their “deafening silence” and for the apparent lack of an investigation. Iwacu attempted to follow a lead of Abel Ahishakiye, someone Jean contacted by phone before disappearing, but he too then apparently disappeared.
In early August, colleagues of Jean’s received a tip indicating that he had been secretly detained in Muramvya province. Police spokesperson Pierre Nkurikiye denied that the journalist had been arrested, and on 5 August Burundi’s independent human rights commission (Commission Nationale Indépendante des Droits de l’Homme) stated it found no evidence that Jean was in the custody of the SNR.
Other reporters have recently been similarly targeted. Oximity journalist Julien Barinzigo was arrested on 17 June and released on 05 August with restrictions. Gisa Steve Irakoze of Radio Buja FM was arrested by SNR in early August, before being released on 25 August.
Some have not returned. Rights activist Marie-Claudette Kwizera, with rights organization Ligue Iteka, has not been seen since December 2015 after reportedly being arrested by security agents. APRODH’s president Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa is in exile after surviving an assassination attempt last year, and family members were then murdered.
The risks of attack even follow reporters into exile. Boaz Ntaconayigize, a journalist with Bonesha, in exile in Kampala, was stabbed on 31 July. He said that security agents had come from Bujumbura to infiltrate the refugee community and track journalists and activists. Boaz was also later questioned by Ugandan police.
As many have disappeared or been found dead after being detained, officials’ denial of Jean’s detention has left his friends and colleagues fearful that authorities may be concealing information on his whereabouts or death. On 25 August Iwacu’s editors published a “Letter to Jean” expressing their hopes of finding him and their fears of the worst.