Covering Burundi elections proves challenging for journalists as country plummets into uncertainty

by Les Neuhaus
Oct 30, 2018 in Specialized Topics

Covering the run-up to Burundi’s parliamentary elections has been tricky for local journalists and correspondents, as recent chaos and unrest pushed back the polls to June 5. 

As each week has passed since late April, the tiny Central African nation has slowly but surely crept onto the global media’s radar screen – and for all the wrong reasons, evoking memories from an unstable and bloody past that rocked both the country and Great Lakes region for years before relative peace came in the mid-2000s.

That hard-fought peace is now at a serious crossroads. The current president – Pierre Nkurunziza – wants a third term as president, which is one too many, according to the nation’s constitution and a peace treaty that ended the country’s 12-year civil war in 2005 after roughly 300,000 Burundians perished in that conflict.

As a result of Nkurunziza’s recent actions, an army general attempted an unsuccessful-but-disruptive coup d’état; a leading opposition figure was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in Bujumbura, the country’s capital; more than two dozen protesters have been killed, with dozens more wounded, in clashes with police and state security forces; at least three independent radio stations have been shut down by the government, with journalists in hiding, and social media websites and messaging services being blocked; the government has created a Facebook page to solicit money to pay for the election, and more than 100,000 Burundians have fled the mayhem, becoming refugees in the process, to Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The situation has morphed into a mess, with new problems arising daily. Nkurunziza seems bent on clinging to power no matter how far down his country – one of the poorest on earth, according to the UN and World Bank – descends.

Isma’il Kushkush, an American-born freelance reporter covering events across East and Central Africa primarily for The New York Times, said there are many tests for journalists looking to cover Burundi’s coming election. He was there recently for much of the turmoil.

“Entering Burundi proved to be something of a challenge,” Kushkush, 42, told IJNet via email on Thursday from Nairobi, Kenya, where he is based as the Times’ acting bureau chief.

“Most journalists acquired their visas from the embassy in Kigali, Rwanda, which was open to granting visas to journalists, rather than other capitals. Some had to drive to Bujumbura when the airport was closed after the coup attempt," he said. “Most of the local experts, journalists, literature are in French. English is not as widely spoken in Burundi as it is in Rwanda. For journalists who do not speak French, or were not able to find capable interpreters, this was something of a challenge, too.”

The situation for local journalists is dire, according to the Tom Rhodes, East Africa representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“The silencing of the country’s most credible private radio stations is of grave concern,” Rhodes said on Thursday via email from Nairobi. “Burundians depend on these stations for information – more especially at a time of uncertainty like this. The risk to local journalists is serious.

"To date, CPJ has received requests for emergency assistance from 12 Burundi journalists who fear for their safety or are unable to work because of the closures. Given the ongoing troubled situation, we anticipate more. We know that individual journalists are being targeted for their reporting and have gone into hiding. We are also aware that even journalists working at the state-run RTNB are under pressure – caught between reporting what they see on the streets and the version of events that police demand they report.”

IJNet attempted to gain comment from several Burundi journalists for this story, but none wanted to participate due to the repressive situation. Beyond that, the situation in Burundi has the potential to devolve if Nkurunziza remains in power, according to Jessica Hatcher, a freelance feature writer who is based in Nairobi, Kenya and writes for The Guardian, Foreign Policy and others. She was also in Bujumbura recently, covering the refugee crisis.

“Yes, I believe this has the potential to unravel further and I don't feel that citizens are in a position to stop it,” Hatcher, said via email from London on Friday. “Those fighting against the president now are acting in the name of peace and stability. I can't see them backing down in the name of peace and stability. For them, the third term represents the nullification of the Arusha accords – it stands for a failure of what Burundi has achieved in the last decade and it is therefore highly emotionally charged. I can't see either side backing down at the moment.”

What advice does she have for journalists heading to Burundi to cover the elections?

“Go slowly, get accredited, and talk to as many people as you can,” she said. “Burundians in the capital are remarkably open and honest. I found it a very rewarding reporting environment because of peoples’ honesty, but also their beliefs. Go with an open mind – I have interviewed Tutsi [minority group], Imbonerakure [ruling party militias], many, many Hutu [majority group] protesters, and European consuls who think the current crisis is a good thing for Burundi's nascent democracy.”

Kushkush offered some advice, too.

“There is generally a friendly atmosphere towards the media,” he said. “Average Burundians are willing to speak to the media as is the government. That, however, is progressively changing with more violence, attacks on independent media houses and local journalists, and growing suspicion from the government towards international media. Many activists, academics and journalists have gone into hiding.”

Most journalists report that local Internet is relatively slow, but Kushkush said he managed to work with it. He recommended bringing a B-GAN and satellite phone, “just in case.”

He also said “flak jackets when covering the protests are highly recommended.” 

Image of 2010 Burundi election CC-licensed on Flickr via Brice Blondel