Get Up, Stand Up, Shut Down: Unrest in Burundi targets the airwaves

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. It’s not clear who’s in charge of the Central African nation of Burundi today. Yesterday, an army general announced a coup against the country’s president. But today, the president, who is trying to win a third term in office, seemed to still be in charge, and the fighting continued in the capital, Bujumbura. Burundi, like neighboring Rwanda, is divided between Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups, and it’s also seen civil war before. What was notable about yesterday’s coup announcement was that it happened on the radio, and much of the fighting in the last 24 hours has taken place around radio stations. The World’s Leo Hornak in London has been following how radio has been shaping this conflict zone.


Leo Hornak: This has been a conflict that has, in some ways, been based around radio. A lot of the fighting that has taken place in the last 24 hours has been actually around radio stations. Independent radio stations have been bombed and attacked by government forces--I mean, these are the reports that we have--and a pro-government, pro-president radio station was actually burnt to the ground before then by anti-government protesters. We actually have some tape of Radio Bonesha, which was an independent radio station. Just 24 hours ago or so, you’d have been able to hear this, which is a DJ explaining that just a few minutes ago the station was surrounded by armed men.


[Excerpt from the radio station]


Werman:  Yeah, so what’s going on here, Leo?


Hornak: And what he’s saying is, “We have been instructed to close down Radio Bonesha,” and you can hear the song that he’s playing, Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up.” It’s no coincidence at all I’m told by my Burundian colleagues here at the BBC. That message and that record is not chosen by chance. He’s saying exactly what the lyrics say.


Werman: Wow. So, radio taking on this role suggests it’s an important means of communication, maybe the most important means of communication in Burundi, at least right now. How did it get to that point?


Hornak: This actually tells you something about the kind of society that Burundi is. It’s a country where there is relatively low literacy, and it is also a country where there is not reliable power. So, newspapers are not a reliable form of mass communication, and also TV, when you need electricity--mains electricity or a generator to be able to watch TV. That’s also not a realistic means of getting a message out and getting news out. So, what do people turn to? They turn to their radios, which you can have operated by batteries, they’re cheap; anyone can have a radio, almost. And that’s a story, in fact, we have seen, and you continue to see, in many conflict zones in the developing world. When people want to get a message out, they turn to radio, and that means the combatants also turn to radio when they want to change that message.


Werman: I mean, Burundi has experienced conflict along ethnic lines in the past, and just next door in Rwanda, the infamous Radio Mille Collines fueled the genocide there with the rhetoric of the on-air personalities. Is this a risk in Burundi further down the road?


Hornak: I spoke to one of my colleagues. He’s from Burundi, he’s one of the BBC journalists here, Robert Patrick Misigaro, and I asked him exactly that question because there is that shared history of Hutu-Tutsi conflict in both countries. And famously, as you just mentioned, in Rwanda, the genocide was, in some ways, directed by radio stations stirring up ethnic hatred. So, I put that question to him and he explained, as a Burundian, how he sees this.


Robert Patrick Misigaro: For the moment, there’s not much of a worry that this could actually degenerate into an ethnic civil war. But with the history of Burundi, you never know. In Rwanda, this radio (?) in 1994 was very instrumental into getting the Tutsis being hunted down. But in Burundi, we don’t have such an example of radio doing such a thing.


Werman: Wow. “You never know...” That’s not a terribly strong vote of confidence that it won’t happen.


Hornak: Indeed, and I think that sums up the situation we’re in right now. It’s a situation which is changing very rapidly, and expecting in 24 hours from now--who knows exactly what the situation will be again.


Werman: My colleague at the BBC, The World’s Leo Hornak on the role of radio in Burundi. Leo, thank you.


Hornak: Thank you very much, Marco.