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Burundi's Independent Media Aren't Going Down Without a Fight

The Press House in Bujumbura. Photo by Flickr user DW Akademie - Africa. CC BY-NC 2.0

The Press House in Bujumbura, from which independent radios were blocked access. Photo by Flickr user DW Akademie – Africa. CC BY-NC 2.0

Journalists in Burundi, where an escalating crisis has imperiled freedom of expression, have persevered, especially online, preventing the situation from passing silently.

Insecurity nevertheless demands creativity and discretion. Online channels have gained new importance, using streamed radio and social media to inform citizens. These news outlets challenge narratives published by official or pro-ruling party CNDD-FDD media, which regularly disregard testimonies contrary to the government-sanctioned story.

Independent broadcasters have been blocked and attacked in the year since President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for and won a third term, sparking protests and later armed insurgency. The government for its part – with its ‘Imbonerakure’ youth-wing, police, and intelligence services – is accused of wide-ranging human rights abuses, including torture, arbitrary arrests and killings. Hundreds have died since the instability began, and more than 200,000 have been made refugees, according to the United Nations.

The main independent news-focused radios – Bonesha, Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), Isanganiro, and RadioTélévision Renaissance – have been left unable to broadcast since their offices were attacked during a failed coup in May 2015, and subsequently legally blocked for investigation.

Pro-government Rema was similarly attacked, reducing Burundi’s once lively media landscape to government-controlled Radio-Télévision Nationale du Burundi (RTNB).

Radios turn to the Web

Independent radios remain unable to broadcast, but Bonesha, Isanganiro, and RPA have continued updating their websites. Bonesha’s last YouTube post and last uploaded news broadcast are dated 12 May, just before the coup.

While independent broadcaster Radio Télévision Renaissance has kept updating its YouTube page, its website was suspended, then made accessible with its latest video on the rebels’ coup message, and then inaccessible again.

Other journalists have began broadcasting on Rwandan radio, targeting Burundians in neighbouring Rwanda and northern and western Burundi. Bonesha’s Kirundi-language emission on Rwandan radio station Isango Star in June 2015 reached six provinces. RPA also broadcast its “Humura Burundi” show from South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, reaching western Burundi and online audiences, although it was arbitrarily raided in October by Nkurunziza-sympathetic DRC authorities.

A group of exiles created the online French and Kirundi news broadcast “Inzamba”, reportedly facing cyber-attacks and a fake website aimed at spreading disinformation. A call-in service via an American phone number, listed online, has allowed Burundians in diaspora to listen to Bonesha.

Iwacu and SOS Médias Burundi

Iwacu, a leading online newspaper, is the last independent Burundian outlet “officially” operating, notably on the Internet and print rather than radio. The site has faced pressure from authorities, however.

In August, Presidential Communications-Counsellor Willy Nyamitwe indicated those outlets suspected of “supporting rebels” would remain closed. Not long after, he accused Iwacu of lying, inciting hostile threats from online government-supporters.

Must you “burn the offices of Iwacu”? Iwacu Press-Group’s response to @willynyamitwe http://t.co/BJWxR5h4Eh

@willynyamitwe why do you harass the only independent media left to us? “Lies”? But where??? #NeBrûlerPasIwacu @abakunzi

Despite hostility from officials and online threats, Iwacu’s audience increased and it has sought new funding. Radio Netherlands Worldwide’s WazaOnline branch and Yaga-blog also initiated the ‘WazaVote’ blog, partnered with Iwacu, for Burundian citizens.

In May, some remaining journalists who hadn't fled into exile created SOS Médias Burundi using Facebook, Twitter, and SoundCloud, quickly gaining thousands of followers. Aware of limited Internet-access, they also target anxious diaspora and international audiences, and their website calls for international solidarity. Deprived of studios and security, they have continued reporting “underground” with smartphones and social media.

INFO – Shots heard in the neighourhoods of #Jabe and #Nyakabiga (residents) #Bujumbura #Burundi

In the same month, however, WhatsApp and Viber were reportedly blocked by major telecoms.
Over 100 journalists fled by December, risking perilous escape routes.

Escaping cyclical violence

Lower revenues and journalists’ precarious exiles have threatened radios’ ability to eventually reopen, as well as Burundian media’s future. Government-discourse often conflates rebels and unidentified gunmen with journalists and rights activists as one single ‘opposition’ to justify restricting even peaceful critics, from calling Interpol on politicians to ‘punishingprotesters.

The government’s militaristic approach seeks to control or stifle critical media and opposition, considering them existential threats rather than democratic partners. Repression incites rebellion, though, one ‘legitimizing’ the other, causing divisive cyclical violence and shrinking political space.

This ‘underground’ reporting helps to challenge impunity for rights abuses and inform citizens inside and outside Burundi. Amid police raids and insurgents’ grenades, trusted media can support civilian rights and broad dialogue, needed to avoid indefinitely trapping Burundians between authoritarian militarization and insurgency.

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