BUJUMBURA, Burundi— Changes are coming to Burundi, with many worrying that the Central African nation will once again descend into unrest. Upon visiting Burundi recently, Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, stated that the nation risked reverting to the “dark days of the past,” a reference to Burundi’s civil war in the 90’s which saw the death of 300,000 people. Radio, immensely popular in Burundi, is credited with helping to bring about the end of that conflict and continues to fight against what many have called a “de facto one-party state.”
Burundi’s current president, Pierre Nkurunziza, has overseen restrictions on rival parties and is currently trying to change the constitution to allow himself to run for a third term.
In March 2014 clashes between police and protesters led to an opposition party’s suspension and to 21 of its members being sentenced to life in prison. Even jogging in groups, oft-practiced in Burundi, has been outlawed because of a fear that joggers could be fomenting unrest and planning uprisings.
But radio stations are fighting against these crackdowns.
Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) broadcasts daily the struggles, opinions and complaints of people of every strata of Burundian society. Their motto states in French, “The voice of the voiceless.”
Yvette Murekasabe, RPA’S news editor at their satellite station in northern Burundi explains, “Someone who was raped, before going to the hospital, they come here. If someone has been attacked, before going to the police, to the government, they come here. Before going anywhere, they come here.”
“People have so much faith in radio,” Murekasabe continues.
Operating in Burundi are 19 radio stations, and as of 2010 about 90 percent of people had radio access. That number has likely increased due to growing access to radio-equipped cell phones.
These figures far outshine newspaper readership and TV access.
Radio in Burundi became enormously popular and important during the civil war of the 90’s. Burundian journalists and international groups created training programs that taught “peace journalism” or “conflict-sensitive journalism,” which focuses on context, mediation and listening to all parties and voices.
These training programs were aimed to prevent what happened in Rwanda, where Radio Mille Collines told listeners to murder Tutsis, calling them “cockroaches.”
And there was great cause for concern, as Burundi’s recent history is very reminiscent of the genocide in Rwanda.
The Belgian colonial government in Burundi flamed ethnic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis in the 20th century, promoting the idea that the latter was ethnically superior. Tutsis ruled the country after independence in 1962 until the election of Hutu Melchoir Ndadaye (the first democratically elected leader in Burundi’s history), who was then assassinated in 1993.
Ndadaye’s assassination led to the mass murder of Tutsis, the subsequent revenge killings of Hutus, and ultimately to a civil war that lasted until 2003.
Diverting from Rwandan history though, where mentioning ethnicity in the press was banned, Burundi’s response to violent ethnic divisions was to see radio as a powerful tool for pluralism, education and reconciliation.
Radio gave all people a voice, from activists, to rebel leaders, to those who had almost died trying to save the lives of those in other ethnic groups.
Patrick Nduwimana, the director of Bonesha FM, another popular radio station, explains, “Our editorial line has always been dialogue, reconciliation and development. It was about having a platform where we could push the government and rebels to sit down and negotiate, to avoid a disaster like what happened in Rwanda.”
Citing fraud during Nkurunziza’s 2005 election, most opposition parties dropped out of elections and much of the political process. Filling this void are radio stations, which find themselves in conflict with Nkurunziza’s government, an administration that has passed laws to restrict the media. These laws exacerbate an already tense media environment that sees journalists intimidated, brought in by the police and arrested.
Vincent Nkeshimana of Radio Insanganiro urges independent media outlets to continue their vital work. He implores, “Burundian media has to continue to exist not only to defend its citizens, but also to defend the identity of the country.”