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As a result of the refusal of President Pierre Nkurunziza to yield power and instead move to amend the Constitution and carry forth with elections that many saw as fraudulent, Burundi entered into a period of political violence and civil unrest in 2015. Though it had had a vibrant civil society since the mass violence of the 1990s, political and ethnic forces threatened to tear the country apart yet again. Until President Nkurunziza's bid to seek a third term in office, flouting constitutional term limits, Burundi had enjoyed a decade of relative political stability and its civil society was thought to be among the most vibrant in the African Great Lakes region. The president's move led to massive street protests, initially supported by the country's prominent human rights defenders. The situation quickly escalated into civil unrest, particularly in Bujumbura, and violent clashes between police forces and the protesters became routine. Many human rights defenders found themselves targeted and were forced to leave the country, along with tens of thousands of citizens fearing the worst. Those who remained have been targeted as the situation spirals out of control. All independent radio stations were shut down and their studios burned down in mid-May 2015, days after the government imposed a media blackout to halt the broadcasting of information on the ongoing demonstrations.

Even before the 2015 crisis, corruption was a serious problem in the country, which was ranked 157th out of 175 in Transparency International 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index. There have been frequent episodes of inter-ethnic violence and those advocating for justice have face a prevailing culture of impunity and lack of an independent judiciary.

The targeting of human rights defenders (HRDs) through the use of violence or the threat of violence has been a worrying trend, in addition to the use of repressive legislation as a means of curtailing their work. Defamation, terrorism and anti-corruption legislation have been used against members of civil society. HRDs denouncing acts of corruption and embezzlement involving public authorities, and those fighting impunity have been subjected to judicial harassment, death threats, defamation and intimidation. HRDs denouncing extrajudicial killings have been charged with support to armed bandits.

In June 2013, President Nkurunziza approved a new Media Law that severely narrowed press freedom: among other things, the new law imposes an obligation on journalists to reveal their sources and expressly forbids publishing stories deemed to undermine national security.