Burundi’s media has been silenced. People no longer walk or sit with have their phone glued to their ear – there is hardly anything left to listen to. A day after the failed coup attempt of 13th May, three influential radio stations and one widely watched private television channel were destroyed, reportedly by policemen and military said to be loyal to president Pierre Nkurunziza. Authorities accuse African Public Radio (RPA), Bonesha Radio Sans Frontií¨re (RSF), Radio Isanganiro and Renaissance TV of supporting the protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid to run for a third term in office. The ruling party’s radio Rema FM was also destroyed.
This absence of information has left the field free to fear and rumour. It is very difficult to remain informed and many unverified images and stories are circulating on social media. The fear of not knowing what is happening is one of the main factors pushing people to flee the country.
When President Pierre Nkurunziza arrived at Bujumbura from Dar es Salaam the day after the failed coup led by General Major Godefroid Niyombare, a former rebel of CNDD- FDD, he promised to allow media stations and publications to reopen. This was, however, made extremely difficult, as the General Director of Renaissance TV was prohibited by police from even entering the premises of his damaged station.
Willy Nyamitwe, the senior advisor in charge of information and communication in the Office of the Presidency, explained that the media can only resume work after the investigation into its attack concluded. He adds that the president didn’t promise that media outlets would be reopened, but rather that an investigation would take place to find out who was responsible. “We must first wait for the public prosecutor to finish his investigation, to identify the losses and to catch the perpetrators so [they can] be punished according to the law,” specified Nyamitwe.
This statement was not appreciated by journalists who fear that it is simply a means of preventing private media from operating again. “I know how investigations are done in Burundi. They don’t want us to work again. This is a way to stop private media broadcasting indefinitely,” complained a journalist with Renaissance TV.
Silencing the media
The chief Editor of Radio Sans Frontií¨re (RSF) Bonesha, Léon Masengo said the attack was clearly politically motivated: “Policemen and militaries that said they were loyalists came here to destroy our material. We had done nothing wrong. We were only here to inform the population.”
Innocent Muhozi, the president of Burundi Press Observatory (OPB) and Director of Radio Television Renaissance, denounced the Media houses’ destruction by policemen. He states that freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Burundian Constitution.
“This is totally absurd. Some of our colleagues are in hiding, others have fled the country. Those who are still here, live in fear. This country is clearly heading for disaster.”
While not taking responsibility for the media black-out, the senior advisor in charge of information and communication in the presidency, Willy Nyamitwe, has stated that private radio stations were complicit in the attempted coup. “They were with the plotters because the latter were in their studios and they have been broadcasting this and even some songs and they have been accompanying this plot as partners.”
The battle for the media occurred after opposition political parties and civil society organizations, united as the “˜Arusha Movement,’ and spent over a month demonstrating against the candidature of President Pierre Nkurunziza. The National Council for the Defense of Democracy- Forces for Defense Democracy (CNDD-FDD), the ruling party, presented Pierre Nkurunziza as the candidate for the presidential election of June 2015, a plan that critics say violates the Burundi constitution and the Arusha Peace Accords.
Tensions mounted over the course of several weeks, finally boiling over when dissident members of the armed forces led by General Major Godefroid Niyombare, a former rebel of CNDD- FDD, announced a coup against the president. Nkurunziza was in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where he was participating in a Summit of East African Community Heads of States, organized to find a solution for the deteriorating security situation in Burundi.
Some media still active
Today only Burundi National Radio Television (RTNB) (a state radio station) is still broadcasting in the country. Other important sources of information are international media such as RFI, VOA and the BBC. Bear in mind that since 27 April, the second day of demonstrations, four influential radio stations were prevented from broadcasting in the countryside. The most popular radio station – African Public Radio (RPA) – was shut down on police orders. It was briefly reopened by the team surrounding General Major Godefroid Niyombare who attempted to overthrown President Pierre Nkurunziza. When the coup was quashed, the RPA building was set on fire by people believed to be loyal to the President.
Iwacu Press Group, the principal newspaper in Burundi, suspended activities after the attempted coup because of security concerns. After thorough deliberation, Iwacu restarted its activities on 19th May, despite worries about the security of journalists. In his speech to mark the reopening of Iwacu, Director Antoine Kaburahe indicated that he cannot guarantee the security of journalist nor the IWACU premises. “We are not sure that our journalists will be respected in the field, but we decided to continue our mission of providing information in spite of the risks we are facing.”
A day later, journalists who went to cover the demonstrations in different communes of the capital were blocked from taking pictures or collecting information. “Policemen and Imbonerakure intimidate and force us to leave the place after deleting all the pictures taken from there,” explained one IWACU journalist. “We cover demonstrations timidly. I worry that policemen will shoot at us. Today, no journalist was authorized to take pictures or interview protesters at Musaga, one of the communes in the south of Bujumbura that has seen some of the most violent protests. Even international journalists have been repulsed by policemen who were shooting at protesters.”
Meanwhile, the protesters welcome the journalists, because they believe that policemen won’t shoot at them when journalists are present. Policemen, however, fear the media. “Policemen don’t like to appear in the media. They complain that the International Criminal Court (ICC) will use the images and pictures to sentence them,” a protester from Musaga explained to an Iwacu journalist.
On Wednesday 20th May President Nkurunziza appeared on television to give a national address. While Burundians were expecting a healing speech from the President after four weeks of crisis in Burundi, members of the Arusha Movement judge the speech as intimidation. Nkurunziza warned local and international journalists: “I warn any journalist who attempts to spread information that promotes hatred and division between Burundians or brings discredit to the Burundi Government or encourages an insurrection movement especially during the electoral period”. The day after the President’s speech, the president of the National Council of Communication, Richard Giramahoro, met with international journalists and correspondents present in Burundi to explain to them that they are not in the country to cover protesters against Pierre Nkurunziza candidature. They are there to cover the election process.
Many Burundians have lost hope. They don’t have access to information and wild rumours are swirling around Bujumbura. People fear that the shutdown of private media is a strategy of the government to kill, arrest or torture their political opponents with impunity. “Denying us access to information is killing the population. We live in extreme fear,” said a woman living at Nyakabiga, one of Bujumbura city council Communes.”We don’t know what is happening around us. Now people are killed, arrested and we don’t hear about it.”
Lorraine Nkengurutse is a Burundian journalist.