Burundi has been teetering on the brink of a civil war for the last year and a half. In 2015, President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he would be taking on a third term – a notion that is illegal according to the constitution.
The move is also in breach of the Arusha peace agreement of 2005 which ended the country’s 12-year-long civil war that left 300,000 people dead.
In protest, Burundians took to the streets in an attempted military coup.
Not only did the coup fail, but the government responded in earnest, with a crackdown on local media. The move was well-studied, shutting down all independent radio stations under the guise of an accusation claiming they were allied with the opposition.
In a country where illiteracy and lack of internet access are rife, radio is the primary source of news, so the government’s radio embargo has hurtled the Burundian public into an information vacuum.
Stories going unreported include cases of mass murder, forced disappearances, torture, and a refugee crisis affecting more than 400,000 people. Even more worrying is the rise of divisive ethnic narratives in the national discourse.
“Burundi national radio and TV is a government-owned medium, so it means politicians come and issue declarations… They say things which are controversial. These lead some people to believe that the public media is playing the role in fuelling the ethnic crisis,” says Pierre Ngendakumana, English editor at Iwacu newspaper.
Like Rwanda, Burundi’s ethnic makeup is majority Hutu, minority Tutsi. And given the role that the media – especially radio, such as in Rwanda – plays, many Burundians fear their state media outlets may turn a political crisis into an ethnic dispute. The Listening Post‘s Johanna Hoes reports.