Trials and tribulations of reporting the Burundian conflict

Police besiege RPA radio, one of the outlawed media outlets.

Police besiege RPA radio, one of the outlawed media outlets.

My name is Bernard Bankukira, I have been working as journalist for over ten years now, I started off in 2005 with Radio Kwizera, a radio station based in the North-Western Tanzanian Region of Ngara.

In Ngara, I encountered all sorts of impediments as a refugee journalist in an ultra-nationalist Tanzanian community. As the repatriation campaign was at its peak, I had to return to Burundi after 14 years away from my motherland.

When I arrived in Burundi in July 2007, I got immediately recruited in August 2007 by Radio Isanganiro, one of the major independent radio stations in the Central African nation.

For the several years I have been at Isanganiro, 2015 has been the most difficult given the ongoing turmoil. The conflict has taken quite a toll on the media, particularly private outlets, and me personally and professionally.

Given the fact that independent radio and Tv stations aired the speech by the leader of the May 13 foiled coup, the government in Bujumbura cracked down on my employers and three other stations in Bujumbura, destroyed and banned them, until now, we are considered enemies of the state, and about three media houses including Isanganiro are still shut.

Mr. Bernard Bankukira working on a story at his house in Bujumbura.

Mr. Bernard Bankukira working on a story at his house in Bujumbura.

Throughout the electoral period last year, and the anti-third term protests (against President Pierre Nkurunziza third term run) the relationship between private media and the Burundian government has been confrontational and full of intrigue and mistrust.

Burundi’s ruling party CNDD-FDD and Nkurunziza’s government have claimed the radio and Tv stations violated the law and “incited” the public by broadcasting the address by the attempted coup leaders in May thus the harsh stance against them.
I remember on Sunday April 26, shortly after protests had started in in some neighborhoods like Nyakabiga, Musaga and Ngagara, the transmitters of radios RPA, Bonesha and Isanganiro (my employers), were switched off as the live coverage of the protests was underway. Thereafter, people outside the capital Bujumbura couldn’t listen to, or watch the speech by Maj. General Godefroid Niyombare.

On Monday 27, the three outlets together with Tele-Renaissance, resolved to cover the protests in the notorious Burundian media synergy, hoping to circumvent the government blockade.

The police resolved to quash the protests by all possible means raided the Media House which was hosting the synergy. For the first time, I witnessed angry policemen forcing their way to the Studio of the Burundi Press House, just to stop the broadcast. Our audience could hear policemen and anchors exchanging harsh words like “stop talking”, “switch off” it was really a tense situation even our veteran journalists had never experienced.

The situation reached its tipping point on the afternoon of May 13, I heard at our radio the renegade Maj. General Godefroid Niyombare, announcing to have deposed rPresident Pierre Nkurunziza from power as the embattled head of state was attending the regional leaders’ summit on the Burundian conflict in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! Panic engulfed us all! No one understood what was going on.

Then I decided to go home immediately, and I must say that was my last time Radio Isanganiro’s premises.
In the course of the attempted coup and its aftermath, my radio was attacked by people in police uniform; computers and transmitters were wrecked, and recorders confiscated.

I, like my colleagues at the other four independent radio stations which aired the coup were accused of having a hand in it and therefore had to panic and hunker down as we feared for our safety.

Radio Isanganiro was no longer on air, neither were Bonesha, RPA, Renaissance and Rema. Several journalists fled to neighbouring Rwanda.

About two weeks before the failed coup and the siege on our radio, I started working with Afrika Reporter as correspondent in Bujumbura, the past 8 months have been a nightmare as far as covering the unrest is concerned.

I and my colleagues at the outlawed outlets have been subjected to all kinds of attacks, harassment, and suspicion and even arrest and detention at the hands the Burundian government.

We have been intimidated and denied access to journalistic information, sources, especially supporters of the current government don’t feel comfortable talking to us on record.

My colleagues who fled to Rwanda have decided to open up an online radio station, Radio Inzamba, as a way of continuing their profession.

I and my fellow journalists who chose to stay in Burundi have been considered informants and correspondents of the “rebel radio” and as a result reporting the developments the country has been quite an ordeal.

On October 27, 2015 I was arrested by the unruly Imbonerakure militia youths affiliated with the ruling party as I tried to cover an armed attack against Kamenge Youth Center that had occurred the previous day. Had it not been police intervention, I think I would have been slain.

Just last Saturday, January 16, 2016, agents from the intelligence service came to my house to arrest me. They ordered me to hand over my phones and laptop. They checked every message. They asked me “Why do you continue to work for a radio which is shut?” They questioned me for several hours.

They told me I was to be arrested pending official interrogation on Monday January 18, but fortunately and suddenly they changed their minds and left.

Why exactly was I being arrested? I don’t know. What were they going to question me about? I don’t know.
Despite the fact that our radio is not operational and I freelance for this website, I continue to be associated with Radio Isanganiro and therefore I find it extremely hard to access key sources and public events.

Unless the government reopens the banned outlets, I and fellow journalists will continue facing hardships as we cover the escalating conflict the best way we can. In addition to these hurdles, the prevailing insecurity especially in around the capital Bujumbura has exacerbated transport and communication problems. It is not easy to  venture out and about to cover grenade explosions and gunfire clashes between security forces and the “criminals” mostly in opposition strongholds. As if that wasn’t enough, more often than not, internet connection is poor or non-existent.

President Nkurunziza has pledged to reopen our radios but he is yet to follow through on this pledge.