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Supporting the family of missing freelancer Jean Bigirimana

Supporting the family of missing freelancer Jean Bigirimana

Last Saturday 22nd July marked one year since the disappearance of freelance journalist Jean Bigirimana in Burundi. We talked to Programme Officer Valentine Gavard about the impact this has had on Jean's family and how RPT's support has been able to help.  

When Jean Bigirimana left his home in Bujumbura on 22nd July 2016 to meet a contact for a story in Muramvya province, it was the last time his wife, Godeberthe, saw him. 

Jean had been working regularly for the independent weekly news website Iwacu. According to witnesses, he was arrested later that day in Muramvya by members of the National Intelligence Service (SNR) but no official information has ever been released. Iwacu's campaign, Finding Jean, demanded information and justice for the freelancer but the promise of an investigation by Burundi's authorities has so far come to nothing.

Valentine Gavard, RPT's Programme Officer for Sub-Saharan Africa, learned of Jean’s disappearance via social media and got in touch with his wife through Iwacu to see if she needed support. Godeberthe and Jean had four children - aged 4, 9, 12 and 14 - and in the wake of Jean’s sudden disappearance they were left completely adrift, without an income.  

An assistance grant from RPT helped to keep the family afloat - it covered rent, bills and food for several months and also helped to cover the children’s school fees. In June, after Godeberthe received several death threats, a second grant helped the family leave Burundi for safety. 

“From December 2016 Godeberthe and I talked on Whatsapp once a week", says Valentine. "After she received the first death threat at the end of March of this year, I realised just how scared and isolated she was. Since then, I have been in touch with her every couple of days.” Valentine also helped Godeberthe plan and organise the practical and legal aspects of her relocation.

The family now feel much safer and, for Godeberthe, having regular contact with the Trust as they restart life in a new country has been very reassuring. 

"The Rory Peck Trust has helped us in many ways during a very difficult and terrifying time in our lives", Godeberthe told us. "While we were in Burundi, the kids could continue going to school. I have been able to pay for their medical fees and I didn't need to worry about our rent and food. Now that we have left Burundi [the children] still miss Jean a lot, but at least at night they have food on their plates and go to bed safe." 

The Trust will continue to stay in touch with Godeberthe for as long as she needs.   

Supporting the families of freelancers is a fundamental part of our work - as vital as the support we give freelancers themselves. “Our mission is not only to support freelance journalists, but also their loved ones who have to deal with the fall-out when things go wrong”, says RPT's Head of Programmes Mary O’Shea. "Indeed its what makes us so unique."

Since June 2015, RPT has provided 23 assistance grants to Burundian freelancers forced into exile as the country has become an increasingly dangerous place to be a journalist.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says they know of at least 100 journalists who have been forced to flee Burundi since April 2015 when protests broke out in response to President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to seek a third term in office.  
Photo credit: Iwacu newspaper 

Valentine Gavard is RPT's Programme Officer for Sub-Saharan Africa. You can follow her on @GavardValentine


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