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Burundi coup: shutdown of radio airwaves stokes fear (+video)

By gagging independent radio stations, the government is promoting fear and undermining long-gained press freedoms. On Wednesday, a Burundian army general declared he was dismissing President Nkurunziza.

UPDATE 11:20 a.m. EST WednesdayBurundians have taken to the streets in celebration after hearing of an attempted coup by former intelligence chief Godefroid Niyombare. President Pierre Nkurunziza is currently in Tanzania meeting with regional government officials. In a statement, his office called the news of a coup “fanciful.”  

The following story, published just as the coup was announced, explains the national effect of the government’s gag of independent radio stations. Bonesha FM and Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) have since begun rebroadcasting news updates throughout Burundi.

BUJUMBURA, BURUNDI -- Walking down streets of the capital, Bonesha FM’s afternoon news plays in a near continuous stream from store radios, cell phones held to ears, and loudspeakers on street corners. In the rest of the country, these broadcasts have gone silent. 

In late April, the Burundian government blocked the signal of some of Burundi’s top radio stations soon after demonstrators took to the streets to protest President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial bid for a third term. Bonesha FM and Radio Isanganiro stopped airing outside the capital, and officials completely shut down Radio Publique Africaine (RPA).

In a country where only 10 percent of the population has electricity and just over 1 percent have internet access, most rely on radio for their news. Information has become especially crucial amid news of a possible coup d'etat on Wednesday following the worst political unrest since Burundi emerged from civil war a decade ago.

“News is like when you take your cup of tea in the morning. I have to eat, I have to take lunch, but I also have to take the news,” says Patrick Nduwimana, the Director of Bonesha FM and the head of the Burundi Broadcasters Association, a collective of a dozen public and private radio stations. As they continue to work, many of his reporters now sleep at the station, fearing for their safety.

“Journalism plays a huge role here. People trust the media. Something they hear on the radio is like something they read in the Bible,” says Davy-Carmel Ingabire, a journalist at Bonesha. In the days following the shutdown, he estimates he received a hundred phone calls and Facebook messages every day from Burundians asking where the news had gone.

For Burundians, the literal radio silence is a reminder of the 12-year civil war that ended in 2005. By limiting the broadcast to Bujumbura, 90 percent of 3.5 million people are cut from daily access to accurate information, Mr. Nduwimana estimates. Already 50,000 Burundians have fled to neighboring countries, fearing an outbreak of large-scale violence. 

“What prompted the exodus across the borders to Rwanda and Congo is the fear of violence. And because the government then cut off the private media in the interior of the country, fear and rumors run rampant,” says Elizabeth McClintock, a managing partner of CMPartners, a consultancy that works on peace initiatives in Burundi.

“One thing that would be a positive sign and would help to reduce the possibility of violence, and reassure people, would be to re-open those radio stations.”

A dependable source

Broadcasting balanced news is important in a country where radio has played a volatile role. During the civil war, radio stations aired ethnically motivated hate speech, similar to that in neighboring Rwanda during the 1994 genocide.

“At that time in Rwanda, the radio contributed a lot to destroying the country,” says Fatuma Tuyisabe, a Bonesha reporter. “It encouraged people to keep killing.”

Though Burundi has since made strides and even used radio to promote peace and reconciliation, and to bridge ethnic divisions, people are still fearing the worst.

“We are very scared. Everyday things seem to break further. These politicians are going to drag us into chaos,” says Gerard Naikuriyo, a mechanic who was out protesting on Tuesday.

Already, people desperate for information have come up with ways to access the news, such as dialing an American phone number to listen to Bonesha’s broadcasts.

US-based Zeno Radio's call-in-to-listen phone number was launched last March for diaspora Burundians. But now, Burundians here are calling the number to find out what is happening in their own country.

Just after noon each day, they gather in living rooms, bars, and restaurants, all chipping in money for phone credit, so that they can gather around one mobile phone and call America to hear the news in Burundi.

“When we’re afraid about something the radio stations are there to give us answers,” says Carmen Havyarimana, a medical student in Bujumbura. Her grandfather in a village outside the capital has chipped in to use the number. “He hears rumors of deaths but he can’t get the details. And so he worries more than us because it’s hard for him to get those essential details about what is going on.” 

Strides in press freedoms

Before the end of the war, private media in Burundi was virtually non-existent. Now the country has up to 20 independent radio stations, but journalists say these advances in press freedom are unraveling.

“Burundi had made huge progress in terms of freedom of speech, in terms of freedom of expression… what we achieved for decades is done,” says Nduwimana.

In late January, Burundian authorities arrested Bob Rugurika, the director of RPA, after he aired an investigative series that implicated senior intelligence officials in a murder of three Italian nuns in Burundi. Mr. Rugurika was released a month later. 

The same day RPA was closed, police raided Burundi’s Press Club, where the offices and some the studios of the radio stations in the Burundi Broadcasters Association are located. The Press Club has since been reopened but the studios remain shuttered. Bonesha has its own studio.

Today the only unfettered radio stations are Radio Rehma, a private radio station labeled a “government mouthpiece” by Reporters without Borders, and state-owned Radio Nationale Burundaise which has been broadcasting mostly music and government speeches since the protests began.

"Burundi authorities are attempting to silence the most popular and most critical private broadcasters in the country,” says Tom Rhodes of the Committee to Protect Journalists in an email. “Authorities have developed a zero-tolerance policy towards the independent press recently and journalists are increasingly intimidated into silence.”

Intimidation of reporters

During the first week of protests, three Bonesha reporters were stopped by suspected Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling party, who tried to drag them out of their car and threatened them with guns and machetes. The reporters were on their way to cover a protest where police were suspected to have fired live rounds into the crowd. 

Other Burundian journalists say they have also experienced violence and intimidation at the hands of the police.

“Now I’m afraid. But this is my country. We must continue. We can’t let people die silently,” says Gipdas Yihunisimpundu, one of the reporters in the car that day. “It’s like a call of duty.”

Despite the threats, journalists continue working around the clock. On a Sunday afternoon the cramped, third-floor offices of Bonesha are a flurry of activity as three journalists rush in from reporting on the first all-women’s protest; a fourth journalist was on the couch after another sleepless night. The radio station recently purchased mattresses and sheets for the five journalists who choose to sleep there for fear of traveling after dark.

“It’s important for us to show people that radio can be used for good,” says Ms. Tuyisabe.

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