Over the past several months, political conflict and turmoil have fueled a sharp deterioration in the environment for free expression in Burundi. Government actions to restrict avenues for the flow of information and debate ahead of President Nkurunziza’s contested run for a third term in office lend credence to doubts about the democratic nature of the upcoming elections and augment the already restricted state of freedom of expression in the country.

In April, President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would run for a third term, despite the two-term limit enshrined in Burundi’s constitution. A constitutional court, however, ruled in favor of his nomination for a third term, employing Nkurunziza’s own argument that he was appointed by the parliament in his first term and not elected by the people. This decision and Nkurunziza’s perceived abuse of power sparked protests that have been ongoing since April 26. An attempted coup, staged on May 13 by military leaders opposed to a third term, was crushed by troops loyal to the president, resulting in renewed protest. A series of brutal government crackdowns on the protests have left at least 77 people dead, more than 590 injured, and more than 1,000 arrested, according to the Associated Press. At least 127,000 Burundians have since fled the violence to neighboring Rwanda and Tanzania.

Since the failed coup, the president has implemented efforts to quash any form of dissent, often directed at journalists and other media workers whom Nkurunziza’s government has publicly blamed for encouraging civil unrest. Several independent media outlets have been forced into closure or otherwise restricted from reporting on the protests due to government bans, physical attacks, or threats. Private radio stations were reportedly attacked with grenades and rockets, and journalists and human rights defenders report receiving death threats and intimidating phone calls. Reports have circulated that the president’s militia, the ruling party’s youth wing known as the Imbonerakure, are behind these violent measures to stymie the independent press and restrict freedom of expression. In addition, at least two foreign journalists have seen their press accreditations rescinded or denied by the government, and those who’ve maintained their accreditation have been turned away from sites of protest.

Many journalists have fled the country because of safety concerns and find the situation too dangerous to return. Journalists remaining in the country are largely in hiding, having to move from safe house to safe house or to disguise themselves to enter public spaces, according to one western journalist working in Burundi who asked to remain anonymous. Ongoing intimidation by police and the Imbonerakure prevents reporting and access to information. 

The situation in Burundi has far-reaching implications for the country and its neighbors. Between 1993 and 2005, Burundi suffered a 12-year civil war arising from ethnic tensions between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority populations—similar circumstances to those that lead to genocide in neighboring Rwanda—that left 300,000 Burundians dead. International officials, human rights groups, and local journalists have suggested that the continued deterioration of “democratic institutions,” including free expression, in Burundi could result in heightening tensions and even larger-scale violence. How the international community responds to the crisis in Burundi will have broad implications for the region: neighboring Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who share comparable ethnic demographics to Burundi, could erupt into conflict if the current violence overflows. With Burundi’s presidential elections set for this week, it is integral that the crackdown on free speech and media freedoms in the country is put to an end, no matter the results at the polls.