Peace Radio: Burundi

Radio Umwizero (Kirundi for “Radio Hope”) began broadcasting on 19 February 1996. The station operated on two FM frequencies, 98.6 MHz for Bujumbura and 106 MHz for the rest of Burundi. The station, employing about 22 people, six of them journalists, and was initially funded by the European Union.

On June 30th 1998, the station closed suddenly because of acute funding problems. Money from the EU was cut off because of a procedural dispute. However, in early March 2000 Janet Anderson, who previously worked at Radio Netherlands, reported that Radio Umwizero was back on the air.

Radio Umwizero was set up by Pierre Pradier, secretary-general of the Association pour l’Action Humanitaire, and backed by the former French Minister for Humanitarian Affairs  Bernard Kouchner. Terence Nahimana, the official representative of Radio Umwizero, said in February 1996 its objective was to contribute to restoring peace and national reconciliation by giving greater prominence to actions taken by youths and local non-governmental organisations (NGO) in the fields of human rights, economy and reconciliation. Mr Nahimana also said the radio did not have any political orientation. “Our orientation can be easily seen through our objective.”

Its mission is to offer young people programmes which are quite lively and entertaining – music and an image of the world which is not an image of violence. It is not a political radio, in the sense that we are not going to supply political news on Burundi, but on the rest of the world, on human rights, on AIDS, sport, music. It is a radio station at which sociology and moral values will be represented, but it will not be a partisan station. ”

However, the credibility of Radio Umwizero was seriously compromised by a combination of poor management and the ethnic composition of its staff. With the exception of one Congolese, all the original reporters came from a single ethnic group, the Tutsis. The station quickly gained a reputation for biased reporting, scaring off potential backers. Nearly 70% of the station’s output was in French, which is only properly understood by 15-20% of the population. Radio Umwizero was perceived as essentially a music station, though it aired four and a half hours per week of conflict resolution programming provided by Studio Ijambo.

In 2001, Radio Umwizero re-launched under a new name of Radio Bonesha FM+ , although keeping the same staff and programming.

Voice of Peace (Ijwi Ry’amahoro)

In June 1996, Burundi’s National Communications Council agreed to a licence request for a new radio station from the Burundi Conference of Catholic Churches. There was also a proposal by the UNESCO to create a Great Lakes regional radio. So far, neither of these projects has materialised.

Radio Netherlands has a separate dossier on Burundi set up by RN producer Eric Beauchemin.

International assistance for Burundi

Studio Ijambo (Kirundi for “wise words”), an independent radio studio, was set up in March 1995 after a joint delegation from the Washington-based Search for Common Ground  (SCG) and Refugees International visited neighbouring Burundi to see what could be done to prevent similar events in Rwanda from occurring in Burundi.

There was clearly an urgent need for balanced and anti-inflammatory broadcasts. Considering that radio was the most productive and cost-effective means for delivering information in the Great Lakes region, where an estimated 85 per cent of the population has access to radios, SCG established Studio Ijambo.

The goal of Studio Ijambo remains the same today. It is to produce high quality reconciliation programmes dedicated to peace and national reconciliation, and credible programmes that promote dialogue among polarised groups.

With programmes jointly produced by journalists from both ethnic groups, Studio Ijambo has developed a reputation for credible, unbiased reporting. The studio currently produces news programmes and two biweekly cultural and social affairs magazines, “Amasaganzira”, in Kirundi, and “Radio Express”, in French. In addition, the studio broadcasts a soap opera that has gained rapid popularity since it began broadcasts in July 1997. Written in Kirundi by a well-known Burundian playwright, “Our Neighbours, Ourselves” is set in one of the rural hill areas and centres around a Hutu and a Tutsi family who live next door to each other. The drama depicts the complexities of the conflict through the relationships between these families. The soap is listened to by 80-90% of the population according to three surveys carried out since the start of 1999.

Studio Ijambo also has a major impact on the youth sector. Surveys indicate that the youth programme ‘Sangwe” is listened to by about 30% of the population. In another survey, 64% of those who listen to the programme said that it is “very successful in bringing Burundi youth together”.

The studio employs some 30 staff, and its programmes are broadcast by the two channels of Burundi National Radio and Television, Radio Bopesha, BBC, VOA, Africa Number One and on Radio Kwizera, based in Ngara, Tanzania, which broadcasts to the Burundian refugees across the border. Its broadcasts are regularly used by other news organisation such as Reuters, the BBC and VOA.

The main broadcaster of Studio Ijambo’s programmes in 1995-96 was Radio Agatashya, the peace radio broadcasting to Rwandan refugees from Zaire. The production facility is featured in the Radio Netherlands Television documentary “Lifelines”. During this period, Studio Ijambo had a potential audience 12 million people throughout the Great Lakes region.

SCG/Burundi activities have been supported by USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, International Alert and the Winston Foundation.

The work of Studio Ijambo has won international awards. The European Community’s Humanitarian Office (ECHO) presented Studio Ijambo with its award for ‘Humanity in the Midst of Conflict’ in December 1998, in recognition of the valuable work it is doing in Burundi. In June 2000, it was announced that Agnes Nindorera, one of Studio Ijambo’s longest-serving journalists, had been selected by the International Women’s Media Foundation in Washington to receive their award for Courage in Journalism. The award is given annually to three outstanding women journalists who “demonstrate great bravery and determination in reporting the news”.

In January 2002, Studio Ijambo opened a Web site which offered five of its 28 weekly programs in streaming audio. According to a press release issued at the time, the site formed part of general expansion plans by the two parent organisations to use streaming media to reach out to diaspora communities. However, a notice currently on the site reads “Studio Ijambo Audio Center is Closed. Due to technical problems, we regret to tell you that this web site is now closed. We hope to reopen it at a later date.”

A new radio station, Radio Isanganiro, started operation in November 2002. Its aim is to “promote dialogue, peace, reconciliation, and the prevention, management and resolution of the conflicts in the sub-region”. It broadcasts in Bujumbura on FM 89.7 MHz. The station hopes to eventually cover all of Burundi, as well as significant parts of Rwanda, eastern DRC, and portions of Tanzania.

According to the Burundi News Agency, Radio Isanganiro is connected with Studio Ijambo. Isanganiro (Kirundi for “Meeting”) was the name of a programme currently produced by Studio Ijambo, targeting the 350,000 Burundian refugees in Tanzania. The new stadion’s objectives are similar: putting the accent on questions such as the return of refugees to their places of origin, justice, the distribution of and the solving of potential conflicts. Radio Isanganiro will have a very broad coverage area: the whole of Burundi, but also a good part of Rwanda, The Congolese region of Kivu and western Tanzania, where there are Burundian refugee camps.

On May 3, 2001, a new independent radio station, Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), began broadcasting in French, Kirundi, and Swahili. Funded by international donors, RPA was particularly influential in promoting ethnic reconciliation between Hutus and Tutsis. Station management made a concentrated effort to hire both Hutu and Tutsi staffers. As a result, the station “struck a nation chord,” according to CPJ, and quickly became the country’s most popular station.

There is concern that the government of Burundi is curbing press freedom by harassing some of the private radio stations. In August 2002, Radio Publique Africaine, was jammed by the Telecommunication Control and Regulation Agency, allegedly because it owed the Agency US$3,000 in unpaid licence fees. Other stations have also been targeted by jamming. The Burundi Association of Journalists issued a statement in which it pointed out that the ceasefire agreement stipulates that freedom of expression should be allowed, and that radio frequencies and airwaves are part of the human heritage. It says that the licence fees being charged by Agency are outrageously expensive.

In September 2003, independent radio stations in Burundi announced that they were boycotting coverage of government events and activities in protest against the temporary suspension of Radio Isanganiro. The government announced on 13 September 2003 that it was suspending Radio Isanganiro for a week, accusing it of having made “statements that might undermine national security”. Alexis Sinduhije, head of Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) said in a statement that “We have decided to boycott all government activities and those of President Domitien Ndayizeye in the first place, for as long as (Radio Isanganiro) is suspended.” Isanganiro said the suspension followed its broadcast of a panel discussion which included Pasteur Habimana, the main adviser and spokesman of the Hutu-dominated National Liberation Forces (FNL), the country’s second largest rebel movement.

A few days later, RPA was itself closed down by the government for an unspecified period. Communications Minister Albert Mbonerane accused RPA of broadcasting Hutu rebel propaganda. Mbonerane said the station had disobeyed orders not to broadcast the remarks of Habimana. RPA Director Alexis Sinduhije said he was “enormously disappointed” that the decision to close the station had come from President Domitien Ndayizeye “who calls himself a democrat and to whom we offered our microphone when he was in opposition.” Sinduhiye insisted that RPA had attempted to be objective. “The government requires us always to be responsible,” he said. “There is no better proof of responsibility than that of allowing all opinions to be expressed, and letting the people decide for themselves.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) protested the banning of two independent radio stations in the space of three days, and called on the government to immediately allow them to return to the air. “We wonder how far the government is going in its efforts to suppress news of rebel activity,” said RSF secretary-general Robert Ménard in a letter to Communications Minister Albert Mbonerane. “Burundians must be allowed to have diversity of news,” he said. Within days, both Radio Isanganiro and Radio Publique Africaine were allowed to resume broadcasting. Alexis Sinduhije, Director of Radio Publique Africa, said “”I welcome the decision to allow us back on the air, which showed the government understood the uselessness of such excessive measures.”

Web sites in Burundi are also affected by the government’s clampdown. RSF reports that “several journalists from the online news agency in-burindi net were beaten up by police in Bujumbura in early January 2002 while investigating the torture by state intelligence service agents of a watchman arrested in the previous month’s murder of Kassi Malan, the World Health Organisation’s representative in Burundi. The police warned the journalists they “could come to the same end.” The National Communications Council banned Burundian media websites on 26 August 2002 from posting material emanating from political groups “preaching hatred and violence.” This was chiefly aimed at the Rugamba website of the Net Press news agency, which carried statements by opposition groups. The Council threatened to shut down Net Press if Rugamba did not stop posting material that “undermines public order and security.”

For more information: www.radionetherlands.nl

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