This article is part of New Europe’s: Our World in 2017

Belgium-Brussels – In Burundi, a small landlocked post-conflict country in Central Africa, the independent broadcasting sector was destroyed in May 2015, following a coup attempt against the regime of President Pierre Nkurunziza. More than 80 journalists, some of them accused of being accomplices to the putschists, were threatened and left the country, while their media outlets were damaged and forbidden to operate. Supported for a decade by the “peace-building” industry, shown as a model of professionalism and pluralism, Burundian journalism now faces huge challenges, both inside the country, where the space for free speech keeps shrinking despite a pluralist façade, and outside, where Burundian journalists in exile have established alternative media outlets.         

Burundi, a small and poor country in Central Africa used to enjoy, for a decade, one of the most professional and vibrant media landscapes in the region. In particular, the Burundian radio stations served as a role model in Francophone Africa, for their involvement in peace-building and democratic consolidation efforts.

Indeed, after a long civil war (1993-2003), at the beginning of which the country had experienced a “hate press”, Burundi had slowly recovered, with the support of the “peace building” industry (be it through initiatives from the UN or international NGOs). At the end of the 1990’s and beginning of the 2000’s, several radio stations (Bonesha FM, Radio Publique Africaine, Radio Isanganiro, Radio-Télévision Renaissance) were established with an aim of contributing to reconciliation and promoting human rights. Composed of mixed newsrooms, gathering Hutu and Tutsi journalists, mostly trained on the job, the radios helped to show that the conflict in Burundi, even though apparently ethnic, was rooted in isolated political ambitions and strategies, and that both communities could live and work together.

From peace journalism to a watchdog role

In 2005, when the first post-conflict elections were organized, granting power to the former rebel group CNDD-FDD, the Burundian media sector had become a role model of pluralism and journalistic professionalism. But, after the 2005 polls, the relations between the ruling party and the media outlets became more difficult. The new government could not understand that the press continued to act as a watchdog, providing critique, denouncing mishaps (like journalists from the private media used to do with the former regime) and giving a voice to the political opposition, after the new team wad democratically elected.

Progressively, the CNDD-FDD regime developed mechanisms aiming at putting pressure on the independent media and controlling the space of free speech: the press law was reformed in 2013, imposing new constraints on the media; the regulatory body CNC (National Communication Council) was used to repress the media, threatening or suspending some of them; journalists were arrested and brought to court, in an obvious attempt to make them silent, control was exerted on the public media (mainly the national broadcaster RTNB, Radio Télévision nationale du Burundi). Last but not least, the regime started to create its own “private” media: Rema FM, Radio Umuco and Star Radio, all of them devoted to support the ruling party. Established in 2008, Rema FM started to attack verbally (quite aggressively) the opponents and prominent members of civil society including human rights defenders and private media managers, especially the ones belonging to the Tutsi community.

The situation became even tenser after the 2010 elections, as political parties from the opposition withdrew from the polls, leaving an empty space in all democratic institutions. This had important consequences for the media sector, as the private media and civil society organizations progressively filled the vacuum, positioning themselves as the only space left for critique.

The brutal closure of a pluralist media landscape

Eventually in April 2015, President Nkurunziza was appointed by his party CNDD-FDD as the party’s candidate for the upcoming elections (a third candidacy was problematic, as it was not in line with the new Constitution adopted in 2005 and the Arusha Peace Agreement). Demonstrations, widely covered by the private media, started in Bujumbura. There was a violent and disproportionate repression of the pacific demonstrations, but these nevertheless went on. Mid-May 2015, some military high rank officers attempted a coup and, during the uncertainty surrounding the military clash, supporters of the putschists went to Rema FM and looted it. The next day, the police and the Imbonerakure (the youth wing of the ruling party) destroyed the four main private stations, which had broadcast the statements of the putschists the day before: Bonesha FM, RPA, Radio Isanganiro, and Radio Télévision Renaissance.

Consequences were twofold. On the one hand, the huge majority of the Burundian population (who is illiterate and lives in the countryside) was deprived of any access to independent news. On the other hand, dozens of journalists and the top managers of the closed radios, threatened and even accused of being “accomplices” of the coup, fled to the neighbouring countries Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Uganda, as well as to Europe.

In Burundi, the circulation of complete, professional and independent information was suddenly very limited. The only remaining independent outlet was the weekly newspaper Iwacu which has a circulation of around 2,000 copies, mostly sold in the capital city. Iwacu website became a precious source of reliable information and daily views grew to 80.000. The company has launched a web TV and a web radio.

The web as the main alternative

In a country that was among the least connected in the world (not even 5% of the population had access to the Internet in 2015), the web has become the place for “alternative” media to expand. Some online initiatives have emerged locally trying to overcome the lack of information. SOS Medias Burundi was created within hours after the closure of the radio stations: it is an informal network of anonymous journalists who collect factual data about violence and casualties. Yaga is a network of bloggers (some of them using a pseudonym, some signing with their real name) trained and supported by Radio Nederland. Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp have become the main conveyors of information and the place for debate. For instance, two radio programmes, Inzamba and Humura Burundi, produced by the exiled journalists in Kigali are disseminated through social networks. Social media have also become the place for the “information battle” between the government (and especially the President Nkurunziza’s communication adviser, Willy Nyamitwe) and the political opposition, civil society and journalists in exile.

But the outreach of theses initiatives and these debates can only be limited as the penetration rate of Internet remains low, even though urban people try more and more to provide equipment to their relatives in the countryside. Most of the people in rural area can only turn to international broadcasters (if they happen to still have short waves receivers), especially BBC and VOA, which are broadcasting daily slots in the national language Kirundi. RPA has also started to broadcast a daily programme on short waves from abroad.

Concerned about maintaining an image of pluralism, the government has developed two strategies regarding the broadcasting sector: on the one hand, the regime has encouraged the establishment of so-called “community” radio stations in small towns: these are supposedly autonomous, but in fact totally devoted to supporting the ruling party. On the other hand, in February 2015, one of the banned stations, Radio Isanganiro, was allowed to start broadcast again, after a newly appointed director signed an agreement with the regulatory authority imposing conditions for the station to operate. The former director, the editor in chief and the director of the programmes were not associated to the relaunch of the station.

There is little room left for independent journalism and complete and balanced information in Burundi. The journalists operating inside of Burundi are under daily pressure and experiencing constant fear, while their colleagues abroad are facing difficult working conditions and tend to turn into political activists. While political experts view the current Burundian situation as a major failure for the peace-builders, questions arise in the journalistic community about the former promoters of peace-journalism: indeed, the ones who advocated for a model of professional journalism in Burundi are today unable to guarantee the security of the journalists who paid the price for remaining independent.