All over the world, monuments are protected and cherished. This is not the case in Burundi. Only a few of those who lost their lives have monuments and they are either not valued or abandoned. The owner of the monument I am going to talk about now is alive but in exile. His name is Innocent Muhozi. Burundian journalist and director of Renaissance Radio Television and is now a media pioneer broadcasting online from exile. He was forced to leave Burundi following the general crisis triggered by the illegal third term of the late President Pierre Nkurunziza. Taking advantage of this crisis, the regime shut down the 4 main independent media in the country and stopped their publications. Two of them were virtually destroyed and set on fire for their complete independence from the regime in Burundi. These are the African People’s Radio and the Renaissance Radio Television (Radio Publique Africaine and Radio Télévision Renaissance) directed by Innocent Muhozi.
Innocent Muhozi’s was a painful but passionate childhood.
He was born into a family of 14 children, a Burundian father and a Rwandan mother. His father, Ntunguka, was a Chief. He had everything he needed to make his family happy. Unfortunately, Belgian Colonisation did not allow this. Between prison life and persona non grata status at home, Ntunguka became a man ruined by the Colonisation. Nevertheless, these experiences did not deter one of the sons, Innocent Muhozi, from his ambitions. Every time he went to his Protestant primary school in District 2 of OCAF (Office of African Cities), he would meet his friends to play football with great joy. His childhood life was divided between studying and football. Spend two minutes with him and you immediately feel the vastness of his general culture. His dream was to become a history teacher.
He always wanted to change things by fighting injustices.
Instead of studying history at the university, he entered the Higher Institute of Military Cadres (ISCAM). An interesting choice. Eventually, he and some of his friends told themselves that there was too much injustice in the country, in 1981. And in order to change things, it was necessary to get his education from the army and make a military coup. The country was still under military regimes with coups taking place. For him, the army adventure did not last long because the barracks life was unbearable for him.
The doors of the future were opening for the mechanic’s assistant who had left the military school.
Innocent Muhozi spent some time at the University of Burundi before orientating himself towards his life’s work this time. After a short 6-month stint as a mechanic’s assistant in the garage of one of his brothers, he decided on journalism. In a way, Muhozi became the mechanic of the media.
In 1984, a half-brother called him and told him that National Radio Television was recruiting new journalists. Innocent Muhozi went to the interview and easily progressed to the next level. “Piece of cake!” he said to himself. He quickly completed his exams in French and the local language Kirundi.
Surprise! One of the two members of the jury refused to hire Muhozi because he was Rwandan. He immediately recognized it by the shape of his face. But since the other candidate was from the same ethnic community as Muhozi – Tutsi – and the other member of the jury, a member of the Hutu community, could not resist his very good French, Muhozi entered this new profession. It was to be a job that would mark 40 years of the country’s history…
Golden Years in the Profession
As soon as he started in journalism, Innocent Muhozi made a name for himself. Above all, he was characterized by his good relations with his colleagues, who elected him President of the Staff Union of Radio Television National of Burundi (RTNB). In 1996, he held this position until his appointment as Director General of RTNB. During the term of President Ntibantunganya, it was proposed that Innocent Muhozi be appointed Director-General of the National Radio Television because of his work with the First Lady of the country, Pascasia Minani. And in agreement with a prime minister of the government of Congress Antoine Nduwayo, Innocent Muhozi accepted the offer.
His career at National Radio Television entered a sad period. This was the assassination of Melchior Ndadaye, the first democratically elected Hutu President. It was a difficult and dangerous time. “First and foremost, as a journalist, I covered the ethnic massacres between Hutus and Tutsis. I witnessed absolute horror,” says Muhoza, “I organized debates with different political actors. I was often with the protagonists of the crisis. It is difficult to find common ground on issues that lead to the death of men… As Director General of RTNB, I also managed issues related to staff safety. Journalists, drivers and technicians were killed or threatened with death while passing through neighborhoods where unrest was ongoing. Sometimes I found myself managing logistics for those who had to stay overnight at RTNB.”
Above all, Innocent Muhozi always says, “I will never forget my struggle for the independence of National Radio Television vis-à-vis different authorities. This has earned me relationships, of course, respectful but often strained.”
During Muhozi’s time at NPR, two men served as Head of State; Sylvester Ntibantunganya and Pierre Buyoya. The latter was known as Innocent Muhozi.
Our protagonist explains that he persuaded the President with policies and decisions in favor of Burundian reconciliation and the opening of the democratic space, multi-partyism, and the birth of civil society organizations and the press.
While Innocent Muhozi and Pierre BUYOYA established links in public opinion that made Muhozi pro-Buyoya, politics and governance remained controversial in Burundian society.
Towards a World of Independent Media
In 2003, Innocent Muhozi left National Television Radio (Radio Télévision Renaissance) to set up his own media. He was a failed historian, but his love for history remained unchanged. This is how the idea of creating media focusing on history and economics remained intact in him. Together with his brother David Gakunzi (Paris-based journalist writer), they turned to French philosopher Bernard Henry Lévy, who donated equipment. The RTR was born and gradually became embedded in the daily life of Burundians. Success was immediate and RTR, like RPA and other independent media, became the Burundians’ crying wall. Exactly the Muhozi idea was realized. When he created Renaissance Radio Television (the first independent television), the aim of this media was to become a lifeline for all victims of injustice in a country battered by decades of crisis and multifaceted injustices. During this time, together with his colleagues, Muhozi founded the Burundi Press Observatory (OPB). This organization became a real compass for professional ethics and deontology. Through this Observatory, Muhozi and his colleagues also fought against attempts by the authorities to silence the press through legislation. In various statements to the press, Muhozi did not hesitate to tell the authorities that the Burundian media and the Observatory would never enforce laws contrary to the universal values of press freedoms and expression.
New Regime and Silence
Innocent Muhozi covered Burundi’s civil war as a journalist from 1993 to 2005. He witnessed the terrible crimes committed by elements of the ruling party still in the maquis. – Despite the reformist rhetoric that characterized the beginning of the reign of the CNDD-FDD party, Innocent Muhozi was not naive. He had seen so many crimes committed by these men that it was hard to believe in a future of peace. Moreover, it did not take long for the new regime to justify the skepticism. In 2006, the regime quickly organized massacres of civilians in Muyinga, in the northeast of the country. A few months later, the ruling party and presidential officials staged a fake coup to jail their predecessors, former president Domitien Ndayizeye and vice-president Alphonse Marie Kadege, along with a dozen former dignitaries. Some still bear the scars of torture in the offices of the National Intelligence Organisation. This authoritarian drift worries all of Burundian society. Independent media and civil society are being targeted. Journalists and activists (more than 20 between 2005 and 2015) have been repeatedly arrested on trumped-up charges of unspent crimes and fictitious accusations of undermining state security. At the time of writing, fellow journalist Floriane Irangabiye has collapsed in prison and was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a fine of 1 million Burundian francs. He is accused of undermining the security of the state for voicing criticism of the authorities management and the assassinations of Burundi’s leaders.
Despite everything, Muhozi continues to be respected by a large part of the leaders of the CNDD-FDD regime. Despite his critical journalism, he has never been arrested or imprisoned. One exception is that three of his colleagues from the other 3 independent media are either in jail or have been in exile for some time. A few names, such as Muhozi the Wise, and Dean Muhozi, have earned him the regime’s clemency. Nevertheless, it is difficult to talk about the struggle for press freedom in Burundi without the name Muhozi. All journalists agree on this.
The last straw
10 Years of democratic backsliding (2005-2015) took place against a backdrop of persistent tensions between the Nkurunziza administration and Burundi’s independent media. Media experts and Burundians in general hoped that President Nkurunziza would leave at the end of his second constitutional term. And boom! The footballer president was not at the end of his reign. With the approval of the CNDD-FDD party, he illegally decided to run for a third term, contrary to the constitution and the Arusha agreements that ended the 1993-2005 Civil War. The civilian population, civil society, and opposition political parties called for peaceful protests against this third presidential term. The police and parts of the army suppressed the protests with bloodshed. Thousands of people were killed, and thousands are still missing.
As usual, the independent media played a watchdog role, documenting and publicizing various forms of serious human rights violations. At the height of the killing of civilians, a group of soldiers and police wanted to stop it. Taking advantage of President Nkurunziza’s absence from a summit in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on 13 May 2015, they attempted a failed coup. The following day the authorities carried out a real manhunt with the army and police. Scores of soldiers and police suspected of supporting the protests were arrested and killed, while others disappeared. At the same time, in order to prosecute these crimes behind closed doors, the regime ordered the closure of 4 independent media outlets. They were accused of transmitting the coup plotters’ statements. Muhozi’s RPA and RTR institutions were systematically destroyed with heavy weapons. This was the first clear message Innocent Muhozi received. Since the attacks on the media on 14 May 2015, more than 100 journalists have been exiled. Innocent Muhozi preferred to wait. Even deep down, he does not yet know what he is waiting for. But death is getting closer every day. Calls are coming from everywhere for him to leave the country. Information about plans for his physical elimination is not enough for him to flee the country he loves so much.
In this general crisis, he is consulted by some international decision-makers trying to find peaceful solutions. He met with an African Union diplomatic mission in Bujumbura in July 2015 and continues to meet with other civil society actors still in the country. Among them is one-time human rights hero Pierre Claver Mbonimpa. On 3 August 2015, at the beginning of the day, Mbonimpa and Muhozi met to assess the situation. Unfortunately, the elderly Mbonimpa did not return home that night. Agents of the National Intelligence Organisation fired several shots, some of which passed through his skull. Nevertheless, he was lucky and did not die there. He was evacuated to the Bujumbura Polyclinic and later taken to Belgium for intensive care. Muhozi remained in Bujumbura. He stands almost alone in front of a crowd of executioners just waiting for the order to kill.
Muhozi is known for his honesty and moral values. He is not corrupt and has never received illegal help. He leads a modest life. “I was wondering how I would escape and start a new life at the expense of my friends and relatives in exile,” Muhozi told us when he arrived in exile in Rwanda, his first country of asylum before traveling to Brussels, where he lives as a political refugee.
Innocent Muhozi has a forty-year career as a journalist in Burundi.
From reporter, President of the RTNB Staff Union to Director General of the National Radio Television, Innocent Muhozi has been involved in all aspects of the Burundian press. Among them is the Burundi Press Observatory, which he continues to direct from exile, leading struggles against all attempts to silence the press. He sometimes plays the role of mediator in strained relations between the authorities and journalists. Not to mention his participation in improving the sometimes gloomy relations between senior journalists and newcomers to the profession.
Today he is still in exile and heads the RTR. He and his fellow colleagues provide news for an online channel dealing with Burundian news. They are currently setting up a digital TV platform where subscribers can also follow current affairs programs, in particular special programs focusing on Burundi’s political, economic, and social history.
Of course, Innocent Muhozi does not complain about the difficult conditions of exile, but he is very angry at those in exile who call them a “nationless society”. Innocent Muhozi believes that a little more commitment could have prevented the ongoing tragedy in Burundi.