Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) was set on fire on Thursday, May 14.

UPDATE Friday May 15:

The leader of Burundi's coup on Friday said that top members of his movement were surrendering after their attempt to overthrow President Pierre Nkurunziza failed.


In Burundi, a war for the country’s radio airwaves has unfolded, following General Godefroid Niyombare's announcement on Wednesday that President Pierre Nkurunziza had been ousted from office by a coup. Almost all of the country’s main radio stations – which are Burundians’ primary sources of information – stopped broadcasting after they were attacked, one after the other, by both loyalist and rebel forces.

The first attack targeted the pro-government private radio station Rema FM, which was set on fire Wednesday evening. Its vehicles were also set ablaze.

On Thursday, four more private stations – all accused by the government of working for the opposition – were attacked at dawn, apparently by loyalist forces. Radio Renaissance was reportedly hit with grenades, injuring one of the building’s guards. Witnesses say they saw police officers, military men and civilians attack the station. According to two Radio Renaissance journalists contacted by France 24, only the station’s electric generator and a car were entirely destroyed.

"This is Radio Renaissance" (RFI journalist Sonia Rolley)

Bonesha FM was also attacked, with both gunshots and grenades. It did not suffer any major damage, but its offices were looted. According to a post on Bonesha FM’s Facebook page, loyalist military and police officers entered the newsroom and forced journalists to leave. Meanwhile, Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) – which, despite its name, is privately-owned – was badly burnt, and Radio Isanganiro, also a private station, was targeted by gunshots around noon. The rebel military officers had used the station’s airwaves to announce their coup on Wednesday, and had still been using it Thursday morning, prior to the attack.

Thursday evening, the only major station still working was Radio-Télévision Nationale du Burundi (RTNB), which is public and pro-government. It had stopped working for a few hours Thursday, after it was attacked with heavy artillery. The attacks resulted in the deaths of three soldiers, according to Le Monde.

"Here's the reason for the battle underway." (Le Monde journalist Jean Philippe Remy)

"The government has been trying to muzzle its critics for months now"

Ketty Nivyabandi is a poet. In the past weeks, she has protested against the president’s plans to run for a third term.

I am shocked by these attacks against private radio stations, which appear to have been carried out by loyalist forces in the cases of the RPA, Bonesha FM and Renaissance. However, it’s just the logical next step in the strategy carried out by the government these last weeks. It has tried to muzzle anyone who is against the president running for a third term. The idea here is clearly to silence these radio stations so that the population can’t hear from anyone who is critical of the government. Case in point: RPA was shut down on April 27, two days after the president announced he would run again. [Editor’s Note: It reopened only briefly on Wednesday]. And these last weeks, Bonesha FM and Radio Isanganiro were not allowed to broadcast outside of the capital, either. [Editor’s Note: Reporters Without Borders has denounced the fact that social networks have also been partially blocked.]

On Wednesday, civilians attacked the pro-government radio Rema FM and set fire to its offices. This station tended to paint the current crisis along ethnic lines and spread false information, which is surely what made these people angry.

“In Burundi, radio stations are the voice of the people”

In Burundi, most people get their news from the radio, since very few people have access to television or the Internet. [Editor’s Note: Only about one percent of the population has Internet access, according to World Bank figures.] Therefore, radio stations play a vital role, especially those that are private and independent. In this last decade, they helped democracy grow by letting people express themselves live on the airwaves. They are the voice of the people. On Wednesday, it was no surprise that people gathered around RPA’s offices right after the announcement of the president’s ousting. It was truly a spontaneous reaction.

“The RPA is a symbol of free speech and democracy”

RPA is more than a radio station: it’s a symbol of free speech and democracy. It’s specialized in investigative reporting. These last years, RPA journalists reported on cases of corruption, embezzlement, and assassinations. They are known for saying what many of their colleagues wouldn’t dare.

Because of all this, the population is very attached to RPA, as was also made clear this past February. On February 19, when the station’s director was freed from prison, hundreds of people came to greet him at RPA’s offices. [Editor’s Note: He had been imprisoned for about a month, following accusations of “complicity in a murder”, “violating the confidentiality of an investigation”, and “conspiracy”.]

“Since the radios are no longer working, we try to stay informed by using phones and the Internet”

All of the private radios that aren’t pro-government – like RPA, Bonesha FM, Renaissance, and Isanganiro – have been accused by the government of working for the opposition. This is absurd; they’re just trying to tell the truth about what’s happening. If another political party took power and did its job poorly, they would criticize them too. In fact, RPA was the first radio station to interview rebels from the CNDD-FDD [which later became a political party led by Nkurunziza, the country’s current president]…

Since the radio stations are no longer working, people try to stay informed via the Internet, and others call each other on the phone to spread news.

Post written with France 24 journalist Chloé Lauvergnier (@clauvergnier).