Reporting Through Burundi’s Coup: A Q&A with Ines Gakiza

by    /  October 26, 2016  / No comments

Burundian journalist Ines Gakiza. Image via Twitter.

Burundian journalist Ines Gakiza. Image via Twitter.

Journalists have long been under pressure in Burundi, although the situation has worsened in recent years. In 2013 President Nkurunziza enacted a law that forbade reporting on matters that could “undermine national security, public order, or the economy.” The inhospitable press climate reached a tipping point two years later, when a coup broke out as a result of President Nkurunziza seeking a constitutionally prohibited third term. Three radio stations and one television station were destroyed by policemen and the military.

Burundian radio journalist Ines Gakiza was working at the private, independently run radio station Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), the most listened to station in Burundi. When the RPA station was destroyed during the coup, Ines left the country along with many of her colleagues. Since March, Ines Gakiza has been studying and reporting from Hamburg as a recipient of the prestigious Hamburger Stiftung für politisch Verfolgte (Hamburg Foundation for Politically Persecuted People). She is currently finishing her studies at the University of Hamburg and hopes to return to Burundi in 2017.

Sampsonia Way interviewed Ines about her work with RPA, Burundi’s press freedom, and how she is helping build the country’s future. The interview is published here in both English and the original French.


What was it like to be a young journalist at RPA?

I started at RPA in 2009 as an intern. Because I was still at university, I had to stop after those six months to finish my courses. I returned to the station in March 2011 after presenting my thesis, and I’ve been here ever since.

It was very interesting, but definitely a bit intimidating at first. I met incredible people who loved their work. It was their special spirit that made me fall in love with journalism. There was a very special energy of brotherhood at the station. We were united by the fact that RPA was unlike the other radio stations in Burundi. It was much more respected by the people, but not liked by the regime. Working under those conditions made us a special family. Even today, despite difficult conditions and distance, we journalists have been able to keep this spirit.  

Journalism was a new world for me, with much to discover. I had to travel to regions in my country where I had never been before. I was definitely pushed to confront unknown situations. For example, if I had to do a report on a body discovered somewhere, I had to go and see the cadaver with my own eyes to be able to describe how the person was killed. Those parts of the job were definitely a shock to me when I was starting out.

Unlike in other countries, Burundian journalists generally don’t specialize in a certain topic. A journalist may report on all subjects, but still you sometimes feel stronger about certain areas than others, so you focus on those more. We touched on everything, so we learned about a wide variety of topics: security, the economy, justice, or human rights. Personally, I preferred reporting on issues relating to justice. I don’t know why, but it’s what interested me the most. I would say that I am proud of all the work I have done with RPA.    

How do cell phones and the high usage of them play in to the way in which news and information is shared? How do these tools affect the work you do and the standing of journalists in Burundi?

Technology is a very important tool for us nowadays. When we launched the magazine, the only efficient way to share the news with a large public, thirsty for information about what was happening in Burundi, was to do so through social media. This helped us reach a large amount of people, considering how widespread smartphones are. But for those who don’t use them, we post on the radio’s website. Since June of 2016, we have made great progress because the magazine is now available via Short Wave (SW), and we are heard around the world on SW, with a 19m wavelengths, and 1540khz frequency. We are on every night from 8 pm to 9 pm, local Bujumbura time. With this advancement, we are able to reach our brothers and sisters in Burundi living in rural areas that don’t have Internet or smartphones but have access to the SW radio system.

How do cell phones and the high usage of them play in to the way in which news and information is shared? How do these tools affect the work you do and the standing of journalists in Burundi?

Technology is a very important tool for us nowadays. When we launched the magazine, the only efficient way to share the news with a large public, thirsty for information about what was happening in Burundi, was to do so through social media. This helped us reach a large amount of people, considering how widespread smartphones are. But for those who don’t use them, we post on the radio’s website. Since June of 2016, we have made great progress because the magazine is now available via Short Wave (SW), and we are heard around the world on SW, with a 19m wavelengths, and 1540khz frequency. We are on every night from 8 pm to 9 pm, local Bujumbura time. With this advancement, we are able to reach our brothers and sisters in Burundi living in rural areas that don’t have Internet or smartphones but have access to the SW radio system.

Were you ever censored? Did you ever practice self-censorship?

Yes, I have self-censored, and not just once. Sometimes I receive information that is well verified, but I can’t share it because of certain rules. The example I can give without much detail regards certain information that I received that, once divulged, would have affected the chief of the secret military. So, we don’t only look at the rules within our fields; there are other things to take into consideration for the good of our country.

How do you think the government benefits from using censorship?

By censoring, the regime limits the range of action for us journalists. They create “restricted zones” for us that they try to protect. I would say that censorship is for their self-protection. We get scared, and we don’t have the right to discuss certain subjects that make us uneasy. That’s how I interpret the uses of censorship, which I do not think are justified. 

If you censor excessively, it pulls the people, step by step, to “non-information.” By limiting the topics that journalists can work on, it’s that they don’t want certain information to be known by the people. So it’s keeping the people in ignorance, uninformed. The work of the journalist is not only to shed light on problems, but also to share information. We not only inform the population, but also educate them. So, if you censor, it is leading your people to “non-information,” to ignorance.

During the 2015 coup the Burundian government imposed a media blackout. What was the effect of an information vacuum on the protests?

The effect of the “blackout” during the demonstrations was that it allowed the criminals to kill, in silence, without anyone being able to ask for help. The regime set these bloody barriers in place for the demonstrations. It was normal and logical for them to start by destroying the radios. That way, the people would no longer to be able to use the primary channel they had to cry out. So the damage that was done, I am almost one hundred percent sure, would not have happened had the radios been working. 

On April 25, 2015, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he would stand for a third term in office, defying the 2000 Arusha peace agreement. The following day, protesters took to the streets and on April 27, civil leaders began to be arrested and the RPA offices were shut down. Could you take us through your experience of those 72 hours?

Those are some very unpleasant memories of long days that were extremely stressful and jostling. I remember the infamous day of April 25. It was a Saturday. We were waiting to hear the announcement. Even though the outcome was predictable, it was the set-off towards catastrophe. I was definitely scared. All Burundians were. That night, I was on the evening show, and it was all the radio was discussing; different attempts to describe this attitude that had only led the country into chaos.

The next day, I was at the scene early to follow the beginnings of the protests in a certain neighborhoods. We had all been dispatched to different localities. The first hours were rather reserved, because it was only protesters. Policemen or otherwise, still no one knew how close the other side would come. As they continued, the police violence heightened; they started shooting the protestors. It was not easy because we journalists were stuck in between the two groups, and the police did not hesitate to cluster us with the protestors and started throwing tear gas grenades at us. We were in a difficult situation: we needed to protect ourselves while also attempting to follow everything.

Eventually, around 11 am, there was a first attempt to close the radio station. When I learned that three ministers were at the office, I left the protests to go, just as my colleagues in other neighborhoods did. That day, they were unsuccessful, but they definitely managed to destabilize us and our work. And this was a sign that for us at RPA that things were not going to be easy. That Monday, I returned to make some more rounds in the neighborhoods, facing the same risks as before. But that afternoon, we closed the station. This presented us not only with having tougher work, but also a frightening future.

What did you do on the day of the coup in May 2015?

The day of the coup, May 13, the putsch forced us to open. We re-launched our programs, so I headed to the station where I met all my colleagues after a few days of not working. A crowd came to celebrate in front of our building. I remember it was not that easy, for the coup had still not successfully claimed victory. We sensed that this was going to be terrible, because they would come after us as well. I left the station around 10 pm, because the next day I was doing the morning segment. The chauffeur picked me up at 4 am with three other colleagues who were also part of the morning team. As we drove, we heard gunshots. Our station had been attacked. The coup had led a military guard to our station, as they were retaliating against attacks. But the other side was heavily armed; no intervention was possible because we had been attacked by the regime that had reclaimed control. We had been alerted in time, so we diverted from our route to the station. At dawn, we hid somewhere in town awaiting daybreak, hoping the attack wouldn’t be too brutal. Around 9 am, the gunshots stopped, so we went to go check. We couldn’t reach the station because police had barricaded everything, guarding a building in flames. After the attack, they found gasoline and set fire to the building, and everything inside was burnt to ashes.

After the coup, Burundian journalists began to be very concerned about alleged hit lists from the government targeting them. To your knowledge, were you or any of your colleagues named in these hit lists?

The lists that were first released included those who had been accused of participating in the putsch. Of the thirty-four included, seven were journalists, of which two came from my radio station. Later, after launching our online magazine, we received information that the government in power was preparing the assassination of the journalists of the magazine. I am on the list that was shared with us.

How did you arrive at the decision to leave Burundi? Did you consider staying and reporting from in hiding?

Two days after the destruction of our station, some of my colleagues and I went to see the damage. I realized that there was no more hope for us in this country under this regime. That same night, I decided to leave. The next day I left with fear in my stomach. All flights had been suspended after the coup, so the only way to leave the country was by car, with all the risks. Luckily, I was able to cross the border without incident.

Was there ever a moment when you considered abandoning reporting in order to preserve your personal safety?

Despite the risks, the idea never crossed my mind. It is a noble profession, just a bad regime. The times will change.

I would say that the motivation, the determination, in spite of the risks, comes from the importance and value of what we are trying to achieve. Yes, the risks were real. Many of my colleagues have lived through imprisonment, forced fleeing, living under cover. We all end up dying, but the goal in life is to try to be beneficial, to do good, during the days that we do have.

I’d like to touch on your current situation. In the bio you sent me, you mentioned that you love your work as a journalist “parce qu’il sert les gens au Burundi” (“because it serves the people of Burundi”). How have you maintain this responsibility from abroad?

I’ve been in Germany since the end of March. I came after spending 10 months in Rwanda, where I fled at the breakout of the crisis. I was working from Rwanda as well; we re-launched and resumed our work from there. We reconnected with our sources; because when they shut down the station, we were unemployed and lost contact with them. When we restarted everything in Rwanda, I was able to find my sources. When they finally were able to hear us again from online, even those who had disappeared reached out to us to regain contact. They trusted us because they heard it was the same journalists from RPA, because we kept our names. So we renewed our connections.

I would even say that since my exile, I’ve expanded my address book from what I had when I was in Burundi. So even from Germany, I continue to work like I had in Rwanda, where even then I was not on location. We receive information and news from our sources, and we double-check everything with other sources because it’s a delicate situation when working from afar and abroad. It demands much more attention and a lot of verification, to ensure we’re not manipulated, or pulled towards false information. 

Earlier in 2016 the Burundian government listed the names of seven Burundian journalists living in exile and called for their repatriation for their alleged involvement in the coup. Why is the government continuing to target journalists even when they have left the country?

The government always goes after journalists because they’ve realized that even if they ruined the radios, they didn’t get what they wanted. They hoped to get rid of us, but we relocated. We were threatened, and delocalized, but we still hold the coup and we are still working. So for them, the threat we present still exists.

What projects are you currently working on?

Right now, I am finishing my classes. Because I came from a Francophone country, I started with improving my English. I took English classes here at the University in Hamburg. I finish this month. In August, I am hoping to do an internship here to refine my professionalism in a better-developed radio station than mine. I’m also looking for new experiences with different media in different places. And at the end of my fellowship, I wish to go home.  I still don’t know if that will be possible, but I prefer to be optimistic and think that this time next year, I will be able to return and work for my country, with my co-citizens in the development of our country, and to share with others my experiences in Germany.

How could free media bring about peace and resolution in these long-standing conflicts, both in Burundi and elsewhere? 

Free media journalists are those who have the power and the independence to be able to do their jobs, professionally. And media is a channel of information. Equally though, being in the country – even in times of crisis – means having access to all sources, being able to invest time, and help the state institutions, if they wish to reveal the truth about what’s going on, and informing the public. Independent media is a means of communication, first amongst citizens, and between principal players, without being accused of taking sides by prioritizing only certain voices. Those in power perhaps are refusing to communicate with the opponents, but this does not help solve a crisis. For there to be resolution, there needs to be communication. It is through this free movement that we are brought to truth. There are truths that are not revealed initially, but are discovered gradually. So, as a journalist that has grown in a country that has known many crises, I would say media always helps to resolve conflicts. And now that it’s been over a year that Burundi has been in crisis, there is still no free media. From where we are, we are fighting to be able to continue informing our co-citizens. But unfortunately, those in power will not grant us the liberty to speak. Even from abroad, some continue to ask us to relay their cries for help, but unfortunately, we can’t reach the other side to be able to give an answer to these devastated people.

Read this article in French on the next page.

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