Snap, crackle, hiss: The sound of democracy in Burundi

The Central African nation's legacy of independent radio stations as a force for peace is being put to the test

Journalists in the studios of Insanganiro, one of Burundi's biggest independent radio stations.
Cora Currier

BUJUMBURA, Burundi — The peace that has held for a number of years in Burundi has started to fray. Last month, after clashes between police and supporters of the opposition, the government suspended a prominent political party and sentenced 21 of its members to life in prison. Even group jogging, a popular Burundian hobby that officials now say leads to uprisings, has been banned. The clampdown on rival parties comes as Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, is seeking to change the constitution so that he can run for a third term in next year’s elections.

During a visit to the tiny, mountainous nation in Central Africa last week, Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., warned that Burundi risked a return to the “dark days of its past” — a civil war that resulted in some 300,000 deaths during the 1990s.

Popular independent radio stations helped bring Burundi out of that war. They’ve now become the ballast against Nkurunziza’s de facto one-party state.

Exterior of building of Radio Publique Africaine
Cora Currier

A few hours before Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) airs its midday broadcast, journalists perch where they can. They juggle cell phones and microphones, write their dispatches by hand, then take turns recording them in a few shabby studios whose walls are coated with worn fabric as soundproofing. In the courtyard behind the building, interns flirt, mechanics coax cars back to life and a steady stream of people come to the station to air their grievances. Painted across the building is RPA’s motto, in French: “The voice of the voiceless.”

“People have so much faith in radio,” explains Yvette Murekasabe, news editor of RPA’s satellite station in northern Burundi. “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.”

One day it was a young girl who alleged that a policeman had assaulted her. On another, flood victims who hadn’t received government aid or four retired soldiers who were owed money by the army. An RPA reporter would write down their details, copy their documentation, take them into the studio. One morning, a sleepless reporter stumbled about — he’d been up all night with a group of teachers and students who had been threatened by the youth gang that dominates their high school. They’d come to stay at the radio station for protection.

Wartime beginnings

In Bujumbura, the sleepy capital on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, the radio echoes from shops, bicycle taxis, police handsets and cell phones. Around midday and in the evenings, when the main stations do their news programs — most in French (the colonial tongue) and Kirundi (the indigenous language) — it can feel as though the city itself is emitting the broadcasts.

Nineteen radio stations currently operate in Burundi, and in 2010, nearly 90 percent of the people reported having access to a radio — a figure that has likely grown, thanks to the continued spread of cell phones equipped as FM receptors. (Newspapers and news websites have tiny readerships in the capital and the diaspora, and TV is too costly for most rural Burundians.)

The dominance of radio in Burundi began during the civil war, when local journalists and foreign donors set up training programs for what’s sometimes called peace journalism or conflict-sensitive journalism — reporting with an emphasis on contextualizing violence and bringing in unheard voices. Journalists are seen not only as witnesses but potential mediators. The effort was a direct response to the Rwandan genocide, when Radio Mille Collines notoriously broadcast hate speech against Tutsis, directing listeners to kill “cockroaches.” 

Burundi’s history echoes that of Rwanda. As in Rwanda, Burundi's Belgian colonial government exacerbated an ethnic divide between Hutus and Tutsis, requiring identity cards and promoting racist theories about the superiority of Tutsis. After independence, in 1962, a series of Tutsi strongmen ruled Burundi, and the subsequent decades were marked by spasms of ethnic violence. In October 1993, Melchior Ndadaye, the country’s first democratically elected president and a Hutu, was assassinated. His death triggered massacres of Tutsis, followed by revenge killings of Hutus. Soon after, the country descended into a civil war that lasted until 2003. The last rebel groups disarmed in 2009.

Journalists Willy Ntakarutimana (L) and Anicet Mizero (R), of Radio Publique Africaine Ngozi, a community radio in the north of Burundi, prepare their dispatches for the day's news broadcast.
Dexter Walcott

Radio’s democratic aspects — it is accessible to the illiterate, can be listened to communally, in remote or extreme circumstances, and while going about daily life — are arguably why the century-old technology remains pertinent around the world. This makes radio an effective propaganda tool, used by everyone from the Nazis to both Cold War superpowers. 

Journalists at the Bujumbura offices of Radio Insanganiro, one of Burundi’s independent stations, work under a framed quote from Bertolt Brecht, which says that radio should be “able to transmit, but also receive, make the listener not only hear, but also speak, not isolate him, but connect him with others.” In Burundi, the effort became not just about informing, but also creating a savvy citizenry that wouldn’t be seduced by propaganda or hate speech.

Unlike Rwanda, where the response to genocide was to ban all mention of ethnicity and clamp down on the press, Burundi saw “this remarkable opening,” says Marie-Soleil Frère, a Belgian researcher specializing in Central African media, “where the national radio became much more pluralist and the private radios became very popular and powerful.”

During the war, at a time when Tutsis were afraid to enter Hutu neighborhoods and vice versa, radio stations deployed teams of mixed ethnicity. They gave airtime to Hutu rebel leaders and civil-society activists and told stories of Burundians who had risked their lives to save people of different ethnicities. Journalists were trained in conflict resolution, says Floride Ahitungiye, the Burundi director of Search for Common Ground, an American nonprofit that broadcast the first independent reports during the civil war. Call-in political talk shows and soap operas promoting peace and democracy were hugely popular, despite their pedagogical themes.

Francine Kanyange, a journalist with Insanganiro, interviews victims of floods that devastated parts of Bujumbura, Burundi's capital, in mid-February. The family's home had collapsed in torrential rains.
Cora Currier

The three most prominent independent radio stations — RPAInsanganiro and Bonesha FM — were created during the war, all with explicit goals of peace, reconciliation and education. That public-service mission persists: It’s a rare conversation with a journalist that doesn’t include the French verb “sensibiliser” — to sensitize, or raise awareness.

The media in Burundi have long been Tutsi-dominated, but the radio stations try to balance their staff, says Innocent Muhozi, director of TeleRenaissance, a Bujumbura radio and TV stationand president of a press ethics organization. Emile Nibasumba, an RPA journalist, says he frequently hears ethnic rhetoric when reporting on party youth groups and university politics. But, he says, “I avoid generalizations and I try not to talk about ethnicity. I’m trying to help people get over these divisions.”

Patrick Nduwimana, Bonesha FM’s director, says, “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.”

From opposition to incumbent

In 2005, former Hutu rebel leader Pierre Nkurunziza was elected president on a populist platform. His party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) has near total control of the government, after most opposition parties dropped out of the last presidential election, in 2010, citing fraud. (International observers deemed the election mostly free and fair.)

Nkurunziza remains popular, but the economy has made only halting progress. Human-rights abuses, including unsolved killings and violence by armed party-affiliated youth gangs, prompted the U.N. to warn recently of the possibility of international prosecution.

“The CNDD-FDD leadership is so power-hungry and insecure that it wants to reduce the political space as much as it can before the 2015 elections,” says Thierry Vircoulon, the International Crisis Group’s project director for Central Africa.

The independent media, which helped legitimize the CNDD-FDD’s grievances as rebels, now fill the vacuum left by opposition parties — and are in direct conflict with the government. A press law pushed by Nkurunziza last year puts new restrictions on the media and could force journalists to reveal their sources. As it is, journalists are frequently intimidated, called in for questioning and occasionally arrested.

A reporter for Radio Publique Africaine interviews a refugee from Tanzania in a UN-run camp in Rutana, in southern Burundi. Last year, Tanzania forcibly repatriated thousands of undocumented Burundians, some of whom had lived in the country for decades.
Cora Currier

“The Burundian media is truly free,” says Pierre Bambasi, head of the National Council of Communication, the government press regulator. “We just ask them to respect their ethics and the law, rigorously verify your information and give time to all sides,” he said.

RPA is, perhaps unavoidably, associated with the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD), a party started by the station’s founder, Alexis Sinduhije, who campaigned against Nkurunziza in 2010. MSD was suspended in March, and Sinduhije fled the country to avoid arrest. But all of the independent radio stations are relentlessly critical of the government, while the government uses a newer station, Rema FM, with ties to the ruling party, to advance its agenda, says Robert Minganoy, who runs an organization promoting Burundian media. “Burundians have to switch between stations to know what’s going on,” he says.

Lena Slachmuijlder, of Search for Common Ground, says, “The Bujumbura journalists were asking hard questions and demanding accountability. Rather than engaging, the CNDD-FDD cracked down on the journalists, or just didn't respond. The journalists then turned more toward denouncing the government through their editorials.”

The break between the CNDD-FDD and the media isn’t absolute — government officials still come on RPA, and commentators of different stripes duke it out on political talk shows. Burundi’s media are more lively and open than many in the region, notes Slachmuijlder.

Nevertheless, media polarization raises fears of manipulation, bias or rumormongering in a tense election season. During the last two elections, most of the radio stations banded together to deploy journalists across the country, something no station had the manpower to do alone. Radio stations jointly ran one show on polling days. The international community applauded the effort, but many of the radio directors are not optimistic about the possibilities for cooperation in 2015. Claude Nkurunziza, director of Rema FM (no relation to the president), says the other stations will lean toward the opposition. (Rema was accused of inciting tensions in the 2010 elections, although it, too, joined in the collective coverage of the election on the day of.) Indeed, some independent journalists now say they feel the media condoned flawed polls in 2010. Asked about next year, Eric Manirakiza, former director of RPA, says, “Are we going to have a real election to cover?”


Radio headquarters in Bujumbura are hardly luxurious, but they’re miles better than RPA Ngozi, a satellite community radio station in northern Burundi. It broadcasts out of a tiny studio decorated with colorful patterned textiles and plastic flowers. The second recording room is in disrepair. A technician solders broken transistors on one table while the news editor, Yvette Murekasabe, collects assignments from scribbling journalists at another. A pile of dedications to be read on air for birthdays, girlfriends and the like, at 150 Burundian francs (about a dime) a pop, sits nearby.

Murekasabe says that working outside the capital means she covers issues faced by 90 percent of Burundians. “We’re close to them, they know us, and they hold us accountable,” she says.

Nestor Mpawenayo, a technician at Radio Publique Africaine Ngozi, a community radio in northern Burundi, at work in the studio.
Dexter Walcott

The 2013 press law was troublesome, according to Murekasabe, but RPA Ngozi’s journalists have clashed with local authorities for years. “What gets talked about in Bujumbura actually happens here,” she says.

In the front room, where motorbikes are parked, a Bonesha FM correspondent, Audace Nimbona, catches up on some work. In the course of reporting, he’s been pelted with rocks and had his house staked out by thugs. “I’m afraid to touch certain subjects” — like youth gangs and land issues — “because I’m so isolated,” he says.

Salaries for most Burundian journalists range from $60 to $160 per month, and the radio directors are matter-of-fact about their dependence on foreign assistance to pay them. (Half of Burundi’s national budget comes from outside aid.) But they also say that donors are starting to cut back. Hit Radio, a corporate Top 40 station out of Morocco, is expected to start broadcasting in Burundi soon. The local radio stations will have to compete as postwar Burundi reintegrates into the regional economy.

“Burundian media has to continue to exist not only to defend its citizens, but also to defend the identity of the country,” says Vincent Nkeshimana, of Insanganiro. He later expressed the same sentiment at a conference on Burundian politics: “We need to construct an image of Burundi not for the world, but for ourselves.”

After floods struck Bujumbura’s outskirts in mid-February, killing scores and washing away hundreds of homes, Francine Kayange, an Insanganiro journalist, interviewed people who were sheltering homeless neighbors. A crowd soon gathered, such that the petite Kayange practically disappeared as she passed her microphone from head to head, gathering stories.

“Tout le monde wants to have their say on the radio,” she says when she finally extricates herself and heads back to her truck. “Everyone.”

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