Four journalists in Burundi and their driver were charged Saturday with undermining state security, according to their newspaper and Human Rights Watch.
The journalists for Iwacu, one of the few remaining private media organizations in the East African nation, were arrested earlier this week in Bubanza province, in northwestern Burundi, where they had gone to report on clashes between the army and a rebel group.
The journalists were headed to the Kibira natural reserve, where there were reports of fighting between security forces and rebels of the Resistance Movement for the Rule of Law in Burundi. The rebel group is based in neighboring Congo and had claimed responsibility for an attack.
President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government has cracked down on the news media ahead of the election in 2020. Several local radio stations and media houses have been closed and many journalists have fled the country.
The government suspended broadcasts in Burundi by the Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corporation. Jean Bigirimana, a journalist with Iwacu, has been missing since July 2016.
Burundi has been plagued by political violence since April 2015, when Nkurunziza announced he would seek a disputed third term. Nkurunziza won re-election despite widespread protests, and the country remained volatile.
More than 1,200 people have been killed in the government crackdown on the protests, according to the U.N. Nearly 350,000 people have fled the country, reported the International Crisis Group.
The four Iwacu journalists and their driver were arrested and then questioned by police before being charged with “complicity to undermine state security” and being transferred to Bubanza Central Prison, according to a tweet by the newspaper.
“Independent journalists are regarded by the Nkurunziza government as being enemies of the state,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “They play a crucial role in reporting on increasing abuses as we move toward the 2020 election. This is a terrible sign for Burundi.”
Nkurunziza’s ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy, and its youth militia, the Imbonerakure, have been accused by rights groups of killing, torturing, raping and intimidating members of the opposition.