One day after World Press Freedom Day, and ten days before a referendum vote that could change presidential term limits, the government of Burundi announced on Friday, May 4 that it would suspend Voice of America’s [VOA] FM broadcasts for six months, effective Monday, May 7.
Burundi's National Communications Council, which issued the ban, accused VOA and the British Broadcasting Corporation [BBC] of breaching laws regulating the media and engaging in so-called "unethical conduct."
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.
“We are dismayed by the actions taken today by the Burundi National Communications Council to ban VOA from broadcasting its news and information programs,” said VOA Director Amanda Bennett.
“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.”
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.
VOA reporters on the ground reported on Monday morning that the suspension has been carried out.
“While the VOA also broadcasts in AM, shortwave, television and on digital platforms, FM radio is without a doubt the most popular means of engaging Burundians,” said Broadcasting Board of Governors John F. Lansing in a statement issued on May 7th.
“They have come to rely on the VOA for unbiased and uncensored news and information,” Mr. Lansing noted.
“The BBG will continue to support the people of Burundi by providing reliable and accurate programming,” said Mr. Lansing. “I urge President Pierre Nkurunziza to reverse this decision.”
The United States values freedom of the press as a key component of democratic governance,” a U.S. State Department official commented. “We are disappointed with the actions in Burundi and have raised those concerns directly with the Government.”