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From radio silence to virtual airwaves: A conversation with SOS Médias Burundi

How the destruction of private radio stations affects access to information about the Burundi crisis, and what SOS Médias Burundi is doing about it

A protester carries a placard urging the government to re-open their local Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) in Burundi's capital Bujumbura, 29 April 2015
A protester carries a placard urging the government to re-open their local Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) in Burundi's capital Bujumbura, 29 April 2015

REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

When was the last time you saw Burundi in the news?

If it has been close to a year, there's good reason.

Last May, international media was abuzz with stories about the East African country, after an attempted coup d'état threatened to depose President Pierre Nkurunziza.

Massive protests began when Nkurunziza was elected for a third term – an occurrence that members of the opposition deemed unconstitutional. The former Hutu rebel leader has been in power since 2005.

In the ten months that have transpired since the attempted coup d'état, Burundi has entered one of the worst crises since its civil war. Opposition leaders and supporters have been killed, civilians have been arrested and tortured, and hundreds of thousands of people have fled the country.

But many people both inside and outside Burundi have little to no information about the violent reality that has overtaken the country. This is in large part due to the fact that, since the coup, independent media outlets – particularly radio stations – have been destroyed, shut down or heavily censored by the government.

Radio is the primary source of news in Burundi, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a GDP of $900 USD per capita and an adult literacy rate of approximately 86%.

As Karine Poirier – a project officer at the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) – wrote IFEX, “independent and community radio stations are vectors of knowledge sharing, education and development. They are engaged in their communities, broadcasting in local languages and covering issues that may not be addressed by other media.”

It is therefore no surprise that after Bonesha FM, Renaissance Radio and Television, Radio Isanganiro, and Radio Publique Africaine were shut down, many citizens were left in radio silence.

A Burundian refugee woman carries a radio as she rests with her belongings on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Kagunga village in Kigoma region in western Tanzania, 18 May 2015
A Burundian refugee woman carries a radio as she rests with her belongings on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Kagunga village in Kigoma region in western Tanzania, 18 May 2015

REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

That's when SOS Médias Burundi (SOS MBDI) was born.

“Since we didn't have any microphones or studios, we still had our smartphones to cover the#BurundiCrisis in 2.0” .

Composed of journalists and members of civil society – in Burundi and abroad – the online platform became operational in just 48 hours.

Their philosophy? Tell the Burundi Crisis with facts and only facts. “We do not comment. We refuse to editorialize content,” the collective stated.

Since last May, SOS MBDI has been breaking news over social media, with nearly 14,000 Twitter followers, 28,000 Facebook followers and 200,000 Soundcloud playbacks.

Admittedly, their approach is not a replacement for radio news. In 2013, only 1.3 percent of Burundi's population used the Internet, according to the International Telecommunications Union.

And – as Poirier notes – radio is still the most efficient way to reach a lot of people. “It's the first source of information for the majority of the population in most countries in Africa. Being based on the Internet, an initiative like SOS-Médias Burundi is reaching a different public.”

But SOS MBDI is doing the best they can under the circumstances, especially in a place where they say “the absence of credible media leaves the field open to rumour and manipulation.”

Last month, the Burundian government allowed Rema FM and Radio Isanganiro to resume operating after nine months of forced closure. But free expression groups like Reporters Without Borders (RSF) welcomed this news with cautious optimism. In a statement, RSF expressed its concern over the fact that the stations' directors had to pledge to “not threaten the country's security” and to be “balanced and objective.”

“This sudden measure by the Burundian government was probably intended as a conciliatory signal to the international community, above all in the run-up to the UN secretary-general's visit to Bujumbura,” said Cléa Kahn-Sriber, the head of RSF's Africa desk in a statement.

Since we didn't have any microphones or studios, we still had our smartphones to cover the #BurundiCrisis in 2.0.

“But it is not enough because the authorities continue to act in a completely arbitrary manner. Since May 2015, they maintained the ban on the radio stations on the grounds that a judicial investigation was under way. Has the investigation into Radio Isanganiro been completed? If so, what were its findings? And why are the other privately-owned radio stations not being allowed to reopen?"

When asked on its stance regarding the reopening of the two stations, SOS MBDI said it echoed RSF's stance.

In the Q & A below, anonymous representatives of SOS MBDI further discuss the collective's commitment to spreading information about the crisis and outline how they are addressing the information blackout in new and innovative ways.


Caro Rolando: Why do you think the government shut down so many radio stations after the attempted coup attempt last year?

SOS MBDI: You mean the destruction of these radio stations. We were in a volatile situation: a landscape of independent radio stations with true investigative capabilities as well as more and more airtime devoted to members of civil society organizations. These media groups had been in the crosshairs for several months.


What kind of information do you think the government is scared of people obtaining?

Information about corruption, poor governance practices and all that concerns human rights violations (bullying, humiliation, arbitrary arrests, violence, torture, rape, kidnappings and executions).



Above: One of SOS MBDI's reports on Soundcloud. In this audio clip, a human rights expert highlights the importance of facilitating peaceful dialogue between all sides of the conflict in Burundi.


How do the majority of people in Burundi obtain their news - radio, newspaper, online?

Before the events of the spring, we could still talk about freedom of the press in Burundi. Radio stations that produced and broadcast information throughout the country experienced obstacles, of course, but they were tolerated. Since mid-May 2015, we have been living in a kind of blackout. Apart from the powerful RTNB (Radio Télévision Nationale Burundaise) and small radio stations with limited scope that broadcast neutral or musical programming, pluralism &ndah; that is, diverse points of view – no longer exists. Iwacu, Burundi's largest independent newspaper functions as best as it can, but with limited resources (advertising and sales). Furthermore, its chief has left the country.


What role does radio play in informing the public in Burundi?

A determining role as it is everywhere in Africa where communication is more oral than written. Radio, mass media is essential.


What effect has the shutdown of radio had on Burundians’ ability to understand and obtain political information?

The people of Burundi now have only one information channel, that of the RTNB (Radio Télévision Nationale Burundaise). A powerful media group as it is the only one to service the entire country. News content is not free. It is filtered or dictated by the authorities. We frequently witness airtime being taken by officials and police representatives for statements.


How did the idea for SOS Médias Burundi arise?

During the early days of the protest, the authorities started banning private radio stations from broadcasting within the country. RPA (Radio Publique Africaine), an investigative radio station, was forced to close and its transmitters were shut down. During the night of May 14, the coup was failing. The largest media groups, Radio Bonesha FM, RPA, Radio Isanganiro and Radio Télévision Renaissance were looted and set on fire. Radio-Télévision Rema (a pro-government station) was also set on fire once the coup was announced. These tools were completely destroyed. Harassed and threatened, 80% of Burundi media journalists have fled. Since we didn't have any microphones or studios, we still had our smartphones to cover #BurundiCrisis in 2.0. Along with some of those who stayed behind and with members of civil society (in Burundi and abroad), the SOS Médias Burundi (SOS MBDI) initiative took shape. The platform to work on and deliver “hot news” became operational in just 48 hours. Since May, we fight daily to break information via Twitter (almost 14,000 followers ) and Facebook (almost 28,000 followers) and Soundcloud (200 000 playbacks).


Who is your collective mostly made up of? (Print journalists, radio journalists, online journalists?)

Young journalists (women and men) familiar with digital tools. We cannot say more for security reasons.


I have read that the percentage of people who can access the Internet in Burundi is very low. How do people who don’t have the Internet get their news, when most of the radio stations are shut down?

It is important to distinguish between internet and telephony. Many cheap phones have the WhatsApp app. SOS Médias Burundi circulates much of its information through this widespread messaging system.


Does SOS Médias Burundi have a way to share its reports with Burundians who do not have access to the internet?

Word of mouth!


Even if many people within Burundi are unable to access reports by SOS Médias Burundi, why is it important for the international community and international media to see the collective’s reports?

Many observers agree that SOS Médias Burundi is one of the few independent sources providing reliable information from Burundi. While the absence of credible media leaves the field open to rumour and manipulation, over the past months, SOS Médias Burundi has built and image of quality and rigour. We are pleased that this information is getting out and that we can spread it.

A masked protester listens to the radio during demonstrations against the ruling CNDD-FDD party's decision to allow Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for a third five-year term in office, in Bujumbura, 4 May 2015
A masked protester listens to the radio during demonstrations against the ruling CNDD-FDD party's decision to allow Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for a third five-year term in office, in Bujumbura, 4 May 2015

REUTERS/Jean Pierre Aime Harerimana


What are conditions like for journalists working in Burundi at the moment?

It is difficult today to cover Burundi news. Intimidation, pressure and threats towards reporters are real, therefore caution and discretion are needed to deliver information dealing with the “Burundi Crisis”. In this confusing situation, the greatest difficulty is the reliability of information. We are often faced with rumours and manipulation. We must avoid these traps. For us, it comes down to only publishing facts that have been confirmed, verified and cross-checked. It is the only way to win the public's trust.


Without putting yourself at risk or revealing any sensitive information, can you tell me a bit about some of the working conditions you face as an anonymous collective reporting on news the government doesn’t necessarily want out in the public?

The platform operates from Burundi. It is run by about ten people and many relays across the country. We had to adapt and resist against the media reality and political context. Members of SOS MBDI collect information, write newswires, shoot footage and post content on social media (Facebook and Twitter). We cover Bujumbura events and events within the country. Our direction is clear: tell the “Burundi Crisis” by the facts, only the facts. We do not comment. We refuse to editorialize our content. SOS MBDI has many sources on many subjects. We also have many “citizen-witnesses” in the heart of the crisis, in “hot spots”. Regarding the flow of information from the field to our readers and listeners, we cannot say more.

Caro Rolando is the IFEX Section Editor for Africa, Europe and Central Asia.

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