When an attempted coup rocked Burundi last year, Jean Baptiste Bireha was one of the few journalists to report the news. The next night, members of the Imbonerakure, the feared militarised youth wing of Burundi’s ruling party, turned up at his house looking for him.
But Bireha was already gone. Tipped off by a government source, he was on the run. “I never slept in the house again,” Bireha said. “Every independent journalist was wanted after the coup.”
The Guardian view on press freedom: the need for constant vigilance | Editorial
A week later, according to Bireha, he was walking with a friend in the capital, Bujumbura, when presidential guards opened fire. They injured Bireha and killed his friend, he says. Soon after, he fled across the border to Rwanda in disguise.
Many other journalists followed him to escape mounting violence and repression. To fill the news void, Bireha, who resettled in Kigali, banded together with other exiled journalists to form Radio Inzamba – an online, independent radio station-in-exile distributing broadcasts to those back home through Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.
Using a network of informants to report and verify their stories, Inzamba sends vital information to those back in Burundi as well as bringing international attention to what some say are rising incidents of killings by police and intelligence agents.
The country has been in the grip of 18 months of ongoing political violence following a controversial bid by the president, Pierre Nkurunziza, for a third term in office in contravention of the country’s constitution.
In the run-up to the contentious election, the failed coup attempt triggered an intense crackdown on independent media, with government forces destroying radio towers and storming TV studios.
Nkurunziza later won the election and journalists and activists suspected of sympathising with the opposition were immediately targeted as the regime sought to consolidate its power.
Thierry Vircoulon, the Central African project director at International Crisis Group, said the media landscape has been crushed: religious and commercial radios are the last non-government antennas standing.
“Mobile phones and social media maintain a link between many of Burundi’s constituent parts that appear steadily more remote and disconnected: the diaspora and the refugee camps, capital city and rural areas, Burundi and the rest of the world,” Vircoulon said.
Patrick Mitabaro, an Inzamba journalist and the former editor at Radio Isanganiro, remains defiant in the face of government censorship. “By shutting down independent radio stations, Nkurunziza thought he had been able to suppress the truth,” he said. “But in this modern era, with social media platforms all over, he got it wrong.”
Although the reach of outlets like Inzamba and fellow broadcaster SOS Burundi is hard to measure, Francois Bizimana, an Inzamba journalist, says the station has “a big following within the government and army, because everyone wants to know what is happening, or who has been killed”.
Mercy, a student at the University of Bujumbura who did not reveal her full name, said her brother was arrested by the government and taken to military headquarters in September last year. For weeks, the family did not know where he was, or if he was alive, until Radio Inzamba released a report that he had been tortured to death in the office of national intelligence and his body dumped in a hospital.
“After visiting the hospital mortuary, we found the body and it was marked unknown, even though his killers knew him,” Mercy said.
The station has also reported widely on mass graves in Burundi, disclosing the precise locations and identities of people buried and those allegedly responsible for the killings.
‘We use codes’
The ruling party in Burundi views Inzamba radio as anti-government, backed and encouraged by Rwanda, which Nkurunziza accuses of training rebels that have vowed to overthrow him.
I have a WhatsApp group of 87 army officers who are waiting for our news. They delete it immediately after listening
Rwanda denies this, but it is no secret that its president, Paul Kagame, who is poised to run for a third term of his own, is critical of Nkurunziza. Regional observers say Kagame’s acceptance of critics of Burundi but not those of his own government underscores the delicate line that journalists in the region must walk.
People face jail if they are caught listening to Inzamba, Bizimana said. “For government officials or army, we use codes. I have a WhatsApp group of 87 army officers who are there waiting for our news 24 hours; they delete it immediately after listening. These are the same people who give us news and information – they are our supporters in the struggle.”
So while Bireha has found refuge in Rwanda, he is wary of his safety – he knows that Burundian security forces could come looking for him. He maintains a low profile, and says he does not go out to restaurants or bars.
Sitting at his laptop in Inzamba’s congested newsroom, Bireha scrolled through photos of those allegedly killed for opposing Nkurunziza. “I know many of these people killed,” he said. “Some were close friends. One day, hopefully, these people will get justice.”