NAIROBI - Burundi suspended operations by the British Broadcasting Corporation and Voice of America on Friday, two weeks before a referendum that could extend the president's rule for at least a decade.
The National Communication Council said it had suspended the international media organizations for six months, accusing them of breaching press laws and unprofessional conduct.The regulator said in a statement the BBC had invited a Burundi national on its program whose remarks were "inappropriate, exaggerated, non-verified, damaging the reputation of the head of state, to ethnic hatred, to political conflict and civil disobedience."
VOA was suspended for broadcasting on a frequency banned by the regulator, according to the statement. The French broadcaster Radio France International and the local station Isanganiro were also cited in the statement and warned about employing more rigorous verification of sources.
VOA said it was dismayed by the ban but that its content will continue to be available in Kirundi and Kinyarwanda via shortwave channels, on the Internet and on FM transmitters located in neighboring countries.
“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 Director Amanda Bennett said in a statement.
There was no immediate comment from the BBC.
"This falls in line with the repression in Burundi as we head closer to the referendum," said Lewis Mudge, a senior researcher in the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. "The banning of two major sources of information for the Burundian people is worrying.
"This is happening in the context of journalists getting threatened, those reporting on some of the oppression are being muzzled."
Burundi ranks 159th out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index compiled by the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, which says "journalists find it hard to work freely and are often harassed by security forces."
The country is scheduled to hold a referendum on May 17 that would extend the presidential term to seven years from five. If the measure passes, President Pierre Nkurunziza, now 54 years old, would be free to run for office again in 2020.
The amendment would limit the president to two consecutive seven-year terms, but it would not take into account previous terms, potentially extending Nkurunziza's rule to 2034.
"Conditions for holding a credible referendum deteriorate as days go by ... the regime is now afraid of the media's force, which can derail their plan for the upcoming referendum and the 2020 elections," said Léonce Ngendakumana, deputy chairman of the opposition party FRODEBU, the Front for Democracy in Burundi.
On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department condemned recent political violence in Burundi and expressed concern that the vote could hurt the country's institutions. Human rights groups say they do not think the vote will take place in a free and fair climate.
Nearly 430,000 people, including opposition politicians, have fled the East African nation of 10.5 million people since Nkurunziza won a third term in a 2015 election that led to violent clashes. His foes said he had no right to run again.