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Twenty four hours after the celebration of World Press Freedom day, Burundi slammed a six-month ban on broadcasts by Voice of America (VOA) and the BBC, two weeks before the country votes on proposed amendments to the constitution, including changes in presidential term limits.
According to a report by VOA, the ban was announced on Friday by Burundi’s National Communications Council, which accused VOA and the BBC of breaching laws regulating the media and engaging in “unethical conduct.”
Karenga Ramadhani, head of Burundi’s National Communications Council who said the ban would begin on Monday accused the BBC and VOA of “breaches of the law governing the press and ethics”.
The BBC, he said, “damaged the reputation” of President Pierre Nkurunziza during a discussion programme and had “ignored” previous warnings.
Burundi is holding a constitutional referendum on May 17 that would extend presidential terms from five years to seven.
The constitution would continue to limit presidents to two terms, but supporters of current President Pierre Nkurunziza say a “yes” vote would reset the clock and allow him to run for an additional two terms.
VOA has two FM transmitters in Burundi that likely will be shut down if the government follows through on the ban.
However, listeners still could tune in to VOA broadcasts on shortwave, the internet or FM transmitters in neighboring Congo or Rwanda.
Nkurunziza has led the Central African country since 2005.
The United States strongly criticized the president for seeking a third term in 2015, and more recently it denounced alleged acts of violence and intimidation against opponents of the constitutional referendum.
Burundi’s government earlier this week urged the regulator to “take action” against the BBC which it accused of spreading “incendiary statements… hatred and subversion”.
VOA is accused of spreading “very tendentious” information and hiring a journalist “sought by Burundian justice”.
French broadcaster RFI also received a warning for disseminating “tendentious and misleading” information.
Two local stations, Isanganiro and CCIB FM+, were also issued warnings over an alleged lack of “rigorous verification of sources”.
Both the BBC and VOA broadcast daily in the national language, Kirundi, and have for decades drawn large numbers of avid listeners, especially in rural areas.
“This is a sign of the times, because even the previous regimes never dared to close the BBC, even during the civil war when it gave voice to the rebels who are now in power,” a Burundian journalist said on condition of anonymity.
“The Burundian government has decided to silence them while we are in the middle of an referendum campaign, probably so that Burundians do not hear those who advocate ‘no’ or call for a boycott,” he added.