In the midst of a media blackout, Burundians turn to WhatsApp for information
Burundi’s radio stations, traditionally the most popular source for news in the East African country, have been all but shut down since a failed coup last May. In the wake of the coup attempt, President Pierre Nkurunziza cracked down on the independent press, including the country’s “big four” independent channels: Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), Radio Bonesha, Radio Isanganiro and Radio Télé Renaissance. All were destroyed by presidential loyalists on May 14, forcing journalists into exile and plunging Burundi into a media blackout.
Radio Isanganiro was allowed to resume broadcasting on February 19 alongside Rema FM, a station close to the government, but only after signing an agreement pledging not to threaten the country’s security.
The near-blackout of traditional platforms does not mean Burundians have been silenced. Ten months after the coup attempt, WhatsApp, a messaging service that lets groups of 200 or more people exchange information, has become a major news and information outlet for Burundi.
“On WhatsApp we can insert a lot of content, either a link, a screenshot from a website, or any kind of audio or video,” said Jean Régis Nduwimana, a Burundian university lecturer and activist based in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital. Nduwimana is the leader of one WhatsApp group and a member of at least seven others.
Other journalists who have fled Burundi are also using WhatsApp to continue news reporting from exile. Radio Publique Africaine is now using WhatsApp to send daily news bulletins – titled Humura – on mp3 files. The Humura bulletin is produced by RPA journalists living in exile in neighboring Rwanda, and it runs 20 to 30 minutes each day.
Another group of exiled journalists, led by Patrick Nduwimana, the director of Bonesha FM, are producing a rival news bulletin, Nzamba, in Rwanda and distributing it through WhatsApp.
“Whenever they [RPA] send a clip they have their old jingle. That’s how we know it’s RPA,” said Karl-Chris Nsabiyumva, an outspoken blogger and self-professed “twitter veteran” who fled to the U.S. last year after receiving threats. “It goes viral through WhatsApp. That’s how everybody knows what’s happening,” said Nsabiyumva. “You are basically listening to the radio through WhatsApp.”
The demise of “the big four” was a huge blow to information flow in Burundi. Only 67 percent of adults are literate, and Internet penetration is low, so radio was a vital source of news. RPA’s midday programming drew more than one million listeners.
There is no way of measuring the audience size for the WhatsApp news updates, but local journalists, bloggers and activists, as well as international observers, believe it is substantial.
“It is noticeable how much it has changed since the beginning of the crisis with the spread and the access of social media,” said Rachel Nicholson, a researcher focusing on Burundi at Amnesty International.
“It [WhatsApp] has great potential for circumventing some of these restrictions,” she added, referring to the limitations imposed by the media crackdown.
WhatsApp was a popular tool of communication in the capital Bujumbura before the failed coup, when it was used to chat with friends and family. But since then, it’s become a vital news source.
“I did not use WhatsApp, but now I have been forced to connect to this platform,” said a reporter from Radio Isanganiro, who asked for his identity to be concealed to protect his safety, as he is still in the country. “Social media and WhatsApp in particular have played a very preeminent role during the media blackout.”
Even in rural areas, where smartphones are not the norm, Burundians are relying on the messaging app, said Nsabiyumva.
“What people do is they contribute and buy air time for a person who has a smartphone, and when he gets clips they buy him air time, load data and they just sit around his phone and listen,” he said.
“Even people who have really basic literacy skills, they learn how to use WhatsApp because it’s the only way to get information around these days,” added Nsabiyumva.
Besides the newscasts produced by exiled journalists, Burundians use WhatsApp to distribute the text of online articles, Facebook posts and Tweets with news from inside the country. They also share video, photos and audio. And the journalists in exile – as well as some still in the country – use WhatsApp as an information-gathering tool for their reporting.
Although it is not producing audio reports like its peers, Radio Isanganiro began publishing written news stories on its website after the coup. WhatsApp is the source of information that “inspires” them, said the reporter from Radio Isanganiro, but journalists like him who remain in the country still do their own field reporting, despite the risks.
“We still go, but in disguise, without cameras, badges or audio equipment,” he said. “We go in the field, we observe and then we leave.”
Jean-Régis Nduwimana, the leader of ‘Ngagara Breaking News,’ a WhatsApp group named after his opposition neighborhood, said journalists living in exile are also inviting residents who are still in Burundi to contribute and help verify information.
“They [journalists abroad] can always tell me, ‘listen Régis, do you have some information, can you verify this for us?’” Nduwimana said. “They do that in other neighborhoods, too, confirming by two, three, four, five sources and say ‘here are the facts and the photo has been verified because it was taken by this person’.”
Although WhatsApp continues to be the main source for disseminating news in Burundi, Nduwimana said there are signs that security services have tried to infiltrate some groups and intimidate those who use them.
“Before going to work in the morning, people have to delete the messages from their phones,” he said, in case they are stopped at a police checkpoint and found to have photos and messages, such as the exile radio programs, in their phones. “The government does not want people listening to these radio shows,” said Nduwimana.