Radio life without FM: Exiled Burundian radio journalists broadcast on WhatsApp
A media crackdown couldn’t keep these Burundian journalists down. They have resorted to using WhatsApp to reach their audiences
By Franz Krüger
Some 25 journalists are crowded around a dining room table in an ordinary suburban house in Kigali, Rwanda. It’s a news meeting like many others, and the items are pretty standard: peace talks in Arusha, a petrol shortage in Bujumbura, an arrested journalist. But this is an unusual news team. This is Radio Inzamba, a project of radio journalists exiled from their country, neighbouring Burundi.
Which means that covering those stories is not easy. The petrol shortage, due to European Union (EU) sanctions, will have to be covered on the phone as the journalists can’t travel back to their home country. Informants run severe risks if they work with Inzamba, so elaborate precautions have to be made to call them at certain times, and if their voices are to be used on air, they have to be distorted to protect their identities.
There’s a particular edge to the discussion about the arrested journalist. He is a correspondent for the German international service Deutsche Welle, and was arrested across the border in the DRC while visiting refugee camps. Today, he’s due to be handed over to the Burundi authorities, and there is concern about what will happen then. This is a colleague, and the government in Bujumbura is known to be responsible for political trials and disappearances, even assassinations.
Further, the talks in Arusha can’t be covered by just anybody. The regime of President Pierre Nkurunziza has issued arrest warrants against some of the journalists, and the mediator, former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa, has indicated that these reporters should not attend. Inzamba’s news meeting gets sidetracked into a discussion of what Mkapa’s ruling says about his neutrality. The journalists are not impressed.
But the most unusual aspect of this project is that having had their stations closed down back home, they have resorted to a new platform to reach their audiences: WhatsApp. Two versions of a news show are produced every day, each around 20 to 30 minutes in length, one in the national language Kirundi, the other in French, and sent out as audio files on WhatsApp.
Alexandre Nyiungeko, one of three directors of Inzamba, says individual staff have a number of groups — WhatsApp limits the size of a group to 256 members — and send out the shows around 7pm, as well as posting them on a website and other platforms. The members of those initial groups can, and do, forward the file to their own circles, and so the audience builds in a classically viral way.
A similar model is used by another group of exiled journalists, Humura Burundi, a project of Radio Publique Africaine (RPA). Humura also make use of shortwave and have a partnership with a community radio station across the border in the DRC who rebroadcast their material, reaching parts of Bujumbura, according to director Bob Rugurika. But WhatsApp remains primary, reaching audiences inside Burundi, in the diaspora and among the hundreds of thousands of people now in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, whose need for news from back home is particularly acute.
Although it depends on the availability of smartphones and some data, the technique is remarkably successful.
An audience survey conducted by an NGO in late 2016 revealed that Inzamba reaches just over 300 000 people over 18 in Burundi. Adding in younger listeners and those in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, that adds up to a sizeable audience for an unconventional platform. The same survey estimates Humura’s audience at just over 400 000 adults.
Rugurika estimates that the audience is significantly larger but it is still far below the numbers the independent radio stations attracted when they were broadcasting on FM from inside the country. RPA used to be the biggest broadcaster in Burundi by a sizeable margin, bigger than the state broadcaster RTNB. According to a 2013 audience survey by French company IMMAR, RPA had an audience of around 2.5 million people — a share of 38% of the available audience, while RTNB had only 29%.
Burundi used to have a good reputation for media freedom. A power-sharing deal between the major ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis, was concluded in 2000 after lengthy mediation led first by Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere and concluded by South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. The Arusha Accords ended a civil war and ushered in a democratic and relatively peaceful period. Independent media flourished, particularly a set of independent radio stations of which RPA was the largest and most influential.
But in early 2015, this all ended very suddenly. The highly unpopular announcement by President Pierre Nkurunziza that he wanted to seek a third term in office, regarded by many as a violation of the constitution, was greeted by widespread street protests. A coup attempt by army officers was quickly suppressed, and media outlets, including the independent radio stations who had reported the events, were attacked and in some cases burnt down.
Around 100 journalists fled into exile, mostly to neighbouring Rwanda, according to an estimate by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists. They included not only most of the staff of the independent radio stations, but most of the leadership of Burundian journalism as a whole. They were welcomed and supported by their Rwandan colleagues, and were soon able to launch Inzamba, and then Humura. Given the history of genocide in the region, and specifically the role of radio, there had been significant international support for the independent Burundian media, and some of this helped the newly exiled journalists in their new venture of building radio stations without an FM frequency.
Meanwhile, concerns about genocide have resurfaced in Burundi. Ethnic tensions are once again being exploited for political reasons, the exiles say, and in a frightening echo of the use of the term “cockroaches” to refer to Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, they are now being referred to as “hungry dogs”. Cyprien Ndikumana, director general of the media NGO Panos Grand Lac says: “Anything can happen. Genocide comes slowly with such kind of hate speech. All ingredients for a genocide are there. Unfortunately, the international community is just watching. The worst can happen.”
In this atmosphere, the journalists of Humura and Inzamba see their role as being to prevent such a slide. Alexandre Nyiungeko, one of three directors of Inzamba, says: “Our obsession is to see Burundi not to plunge into ethnic chaos or civil war. We want peace, the rule of law, all democratic values. We denounce hate speech.”
Humura director, Rugurika says he believes the work of the radio projects has reduced the number of killings. He argues that where news is broadcast of a disappearance, it allows family members to ask questions, which in turn means the individual may be held under arrest rather than murdered.
The journalists have just marked two years in exile. Much has been achieved in terms of reach and influence, even though recording facilities remain rudimentary, transport is scarce and salaries uncertain.
The projects are beginning to talk about the next steps: how to further improve their reach with other channels besides WhatsApp; how to serve the audiences in the refugee camps better, how to develop new formats of shows. The ultimate aim, though, is for a political settlement that allows them to return.
Willie Nkurunziza, leader of the Burundian exile community in Rwanda, has high praise for the radio projects: “Those journalists are heroes, they are doing extraordinary work. If there is peace in Burundi, it will be those two programmes who will say so and people will go back easily.”