Burundi has announced a six-month ban on broadcasts by Voice of America and the BBC, two weeks before the country votes on proposed amendments to the constitution, including changes in presidential term limits.
The ban was announced Friday by Burundi's National Communications Council, which accused VOA and the BBC of breaching laws regulating the media and engaging in "unethical conduct." The statement said the ban would begin Monday.
The council issued a warning to Radio France Internationale (RFI), accusing it of dishonest reporting about possible reprisals against those calling for a “no” vote in the referendum.
In a statement Friday, VOA Director Amanda Bennett denounced the council's action.
“We are dismayed by the actions taken today by the Burundi National Communications Council to ban VOA from broadcasting its news and information programs,” Bennett said. “Our audience members count on VOA to provide factual, unbiased and objective coverage of current events, so this ban deprives the citizens of Burundi of a trusted news source during a critical time in that country.
"This is even more distressing coming only one day after World Press Freedom Day – a day calling for governments to remove, not impose, restrictions on the media.”
A State Department official said the United States is "disappointed" with the actions of Burundi and has raised those concerns directly with the government.
VOA content will continue to be available in Kirundi and Kinyarwanda via shortwave channels, on the Internet and on FM transmitters located in neighboring countries.
Nkurunziza until 2034?
Burundi is holding a May 17 constitutional referendum that would extend presidential terms from five years to seven. The constitution would continue to limit presidents to two terms, but supporters of incumbent Pierre Nkurunziza say a "yes" vote would reset the clock and allow him to run for an additional two terms.
Nkurunziza has led the central African country since 2005.
The United States strongly criticized the president for seeking a third term in 2015, and this week the State Department denounced alleged acts of violence and intimidation against opponents of the constitutional referendum.
"We call on the government to respect Burundi's international legal obligations regarding the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association," spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday.
Accusation of censorship
Reporters Without Borders also criticized the VOA and BBC suspensions, saying they were "intended to tighten the East African country's gag on the media..."
“Banning two major international broadcasters just days ahead of a referendum on constitutional amendments clearly indicates a desire by the Burundian authorities to censor the public debate and trample on the right to information,” said a statement from Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk.
Joanne Lomas, the British high commissioner to Rwanda and non-resident ambassador to Burundi, took to social media to express her concern.
“Very disappointed to hear BBC and others banned in Burundi for 6 months. Free press an essential part of any election process. Another backward step," she wrote.