For the second time in eight years, prominent Burundian journalist Pierre Claver Niyonkuru finds himself in exile in another country, far away from his home and family.
An unexpected turn of events suddenly changed his one-month visit to the Netherlands into an extended stay at a small asylum seekers’ centre in Sittard-Geleen city, Limburg province, as he anxiously awaits the outcome of his application to be allowed to remain in the face of death threats from unidentified persons from his homeland.
Although the Netherlands is located thousands of kilometres from Rwanda, where he first sought asylum in 2015, and therefore relatively safer, Niyonkuru still faces the same problems – jobless, unable to support his family, and yearning for the day he can resume his work.
The veteran journalist had travelled to The Hague in November 2022 to conduct research and follow up on the investigation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) into the crimes committed in Burundi between 2015 and 2017.
“There are more than 2,000 cases of crimes against humanity committed in Burundi during the two years. My visit was about these cases. Although at the time I also followed other cases in ICC situation countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR), and Uganda, I majorly focused on Burundi,” said Niyonkuru during an interview with Journalists For Justice (JFJ).
“This led me to publish a story that was translated into several languages. This story has changed everything,” he added.
In the article, Niyonkuru conveyed a powerful message: after half a decade of investigations, the ICC has made significant progress and would soon issue international arrest warrants for the alleged perpetrators. The news was welcomed by the victims of the atrocities, including refugees who had fled Burundi, and some human rights organisations and legal professionals with an interest in the subject. They were curious to know the identity of the possible culprits.
However, not everyone connected to Burundi and the crimes was pleased with the news. This included the Burundian authorities and those directly responsible for the atrocities that were committed.
“At the end of November, a week before I was scheduled to return home, they sent me an email. Written in both Kirundi and French, the two official languages of Burundi, they ordered me to stop my work. If I didn’t, they said, getting to me and my family wouldn’t be difficult since the Rwanda-Burundi border was open and they knew where we lived,” recounts Niyonkuru.
The threat was sent by someone claiming to be a member of the Imbonerakure, the youth league of the ruling party in Burundi, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy (Conseil National Pour la Défense de la Démocratie – Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie – CNDD-FDD). The militia is feared in Burundi and is known for its brutality. It has been under investigation by the ICC over its attacks on the Burundian population since 2015.
“I was scared. When they said ‘We will catch, kill, or torture you’, I knew these were not empty threats. They accused me of trying to overthrow the government, and this wasn’t the first time they said so,” the journalist narrated.
The accusations were familiar to Niyonkuru. In 2015, they had been directed at him and many other journalists in Burundi perceived to be anti-establishment. At the time, the country was engulfed in a political crisis precipitated by former President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial determination to seek a third term. His bid sparked widespread opposition from civil society activists, religious figures, and political opponents, who argued that it was unconstitutional.
On the afternoon of May 13, 2015, amid the protests, General Godefroid Niyombare claimed that he had deposed Nkurunziza in a military coup and announced that he had relieved the president of his duties. It was reported that General Niyombare broadcast the announcement on several media outlets. At the time, Niyonkuru was the deputy chief editor at Radio Bonesha, one of the largest independent private radio stations in Burundi. Niyonkuru and his colleagues at Radio Bonesha were committed to their professionalism and provided unbiased coverage of both sides of the political divide.
This did not sit well with the ruling party, government militias, and the police, who regarded the independent media as supporters of the coup plotters. Threats and violence ensued. Private media houses Radio Bonesha, Radio Isanganiro, Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), Rema FM, and Radio-Télévision Renaissance were banned and several journalists, human rights activists, and political opponents were arrested or murdered. Others disappeared and many fled abroad or to nearby countries. Niyonkuru fled to Rwanda in May 2015 with his pregnant wife.
“Over 100 journalists affiliated to the independent radio stations left the country. Life in Rwanda offered a more stable environment for me and my growing family. It was a relief to be able to take care of them while pursuing my career,” Niyonkuru said.
Not long after that, he signed a contract with Voice of America as a correspondent for the East African Community and the Great Lakes Region. Between 2016 and 2019, he was based in Arusha, Tanzania, from where he monitored the progress of the Inter-Burundi Dialogue for the Resolution of the Burundian Political Crisis of 2015, which eventually failed. His focus on being a voice for the voiceless allowed Niyonkuru to work closely with the East African Court of Justice and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, with a particular interest in the Burundian refugees scattered across neighbouring countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, and the DRC.
In 2016, Niyonkuru established contact with the ICC and began contributing news reports to support international justice efforts. In June 2019, JFJ organised a training programme for Burundian journalists in Entebbe, Uganda. Niyonkuru participated.
“This experience further deepened my commitment to reporting on international justice and the quest for accountability for the perpetrators of the crimes. And after consistently covering issues surrounding the situation in Burundi, I got an invitation to the ICC to follow up on the case, and that is how I ended up in The Netherlands,” he said.
After receiving the threatening email, Niyonkuru sought the help of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other organisations dedicated to protecting journalists’ rights such as Free Press Unlimited, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and Reporters without Borders, and was advised to request asylum.
A joint statement issued by Free Press Unlimited and CPJ in December 2023 stated: “Journalists like Niyonkuru should be protected because they participate in the emergence of the truth. Journalists are not criminals, they only shed light on confusing situations and are essential for democracy, the rule of law, and the protection of human rights.”
Living in exile has been a harsh reality for Niyonkuru. His journey to obtain asylum has been fraught with uncertainty. Since his initial interview detailing his itinerary, he awaits another interview during which he will be required to explain his cause and need for protection. The process can take up to a year, during which he cannot work as Dutch law prohibits this until his asylum process is completed. This has left him in limbo, adding to the burden of his inability to support his family.
It is ironic that history seems not to favour Niyonkuru. Two decades ago, after the foundations of the ICC were laid, the diplomatic community promised to support press coverage as a means of facilitating the new court’s operations and enhancing its effectiveness. However, those promises have not been realised. Several trials currently going on at the ICC have no journalists from Africa or situation countries such as CAR and Sudan covering the proceedings. Niyonkuru could have been an invaluable asset in reporting these cases, bringing the voices of the victims and affected communities to the world stage.
Yet not even the adoption of various resolutions to protect journalists from such threats can keep him safe and enable him to continue playing his crucial professional role of upholding the principles of justice, accountability, and human rights.
Despite the challenges, Niyonkuru is determined to continue his work once his safety is assured. He intends to go on advocating the plight of victims and amplifying their voices. His primary desire, he says, is to see justice served for the crimes committed in Burundi.
For now, he has the onerous task of explaining to his young son why he cannot visit him.
“My family’s safety and well-being are of utmost importance,” he says. “The Rwandese government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have provided them protection, but I still fear for their safety.”