Radio and newspaper ban makes social media first choice for news

Five months after the government crackdown on private and independent media, Burundians are relying on social media as the first medium for obtaining and disseminating information as the country’s political crisis deepens, with incidents of violence and general insecurity being reported daily.

Efforts to have the banned private media reopened are still underway with no certainty that they will resume broadcasting soon following accusations of allegedly supporting the masterminds of the attempted coup in May.

“We are concerned about journalists’ security in the country some have been attacked and others detained. We call for the immediate reopening of all independent media,” said the US special envoy to the Great Lakes region, Thomas Perriello, in Bujumbura.

The majority of people now rely on the national broadcaster and community radios for information, with the only independent private media still operating in the country being Iwacu, a French newspaper.

“With the current situation in the country, it is imperative to know what is happening so that you plan your movements to avoid areas hit by insecurity. This is the reason why we have decided to use social media to update each other,” said a resident of Bujumbura.

Citizen journalism has also received a boost in the country with new apps being developed like BurundiCrisis and BurundiOpinion that allow users to send information on what is going on in their localities.

Since the app is used by many and different people around the country, the authenticity of the reports remain vague. “At least 20 per cent of the information posted is real but of course some of it is mere rumours because you cannot control everyone using this app,” said a contributor.

Especially in the capital Bujumbura where there is growing insecurity, those who cannot use Twitter and complicated apps have resorted to WhatsApp groups where information is shared on a daily basis.

“One of my daughters was detained in Muramvya on her way to Rwanda, and this is when I realised how important WhatsApp groups are because this is how I learnt of her ordeal,” said a woman called Josephine.

African Public Radio (RPA), which is one of the private radio stations that was shut down by the government, has capitalised on the mass use of Whatsapp groups to share sound bites of recorded news and information to beat the media ban.

According to figures released by the Burundi telecommunications control regulator in 2013, 6 per cent of the population was connected to the Internet, but 2014 statistics show that 3,200,569 people or more than 30 per cent of the country’s population have access to the Internet on their mobile phones.

It is expected that 2015 figures will show a dramatic rise since in the capital only, it is believed that at least one in every three people relies on the Internet as their first source of news.