Washington, DC – Negussie Mengesha, director of Voice of America’s Africa division, today told members of Congress that free press and free speech are in danger in the central African country of Burundi. Just days ahead of a constitutional referendum that could extend the president’s rule to 2034, the country’s National Council of Communications shut down VOA’s transmitter, cutting off FM news broadcasts in Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, French, Swahili, and English.
Appearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, Mengesha explained that VOA is continuing to fulfill its mission of providing accurate, objective and comprehensive news and information through additional shortwave broadcasts and digital platforms.
Burundi is ranked 159 out of 180 countries in press freedom by the international non-profit, non-governmental organization, Reporters Without Borders. According to Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization, at least 100 journalists have fled the country since 2015 and journalist intimidation is common. As recently as late 2017, VOA evacuated journalists from Burundi for their safety.
“While VOA broadcasts in AM, shortwave, television and on digital platforms,” said Mengesha, “FM radio is by far the most popular means of reaching the audience.”
The shutdown of VOA’s FM stations in Burundi is having a significant effect Mengesha said. “VOA has a measured weekly audience of 57 percent of adults in Burundi,” he explained. “In [the capital city] Bujumbura, the weekly audience is 85 percent.” VOA’s most affected broadcasting is that in the Kirundi language, where research shows that 91% of its audience trusts the news and information from VOA.
Mengesha stressed that VOA’s work in Burundi will continue, despite the obstacles, and thanked the committee for the opportunity to speak.