Truth and Memory in Burundi: One Journalist's Challenge
September 8, 2022
The small, landlocked east African nation of Burundi is known largely for its tragic past and desperate contemporary economic suffering. Ranked as the poorest nation in the world, Burundians struggle under the weight of poverty, but they also live under strict governmental restrictions on freedom of expression (1). Further, Burundi has experienced multiple atrocities without lending agency to those with the courage to expose such crimes. In 2019, the Burundian government ordered a collection of aid organizations and NGOs to leave the country in an effort to mask the torment faced by the nearly 12 million people living there. Journalism became increasingly restrictive and dangerous, with journalists risking arrest and jail time for criticizing governmental actions or merely reporting the truth. However, despite the intimidation, local journalists continue to expose the truth about Burundi’s current suffering and bloodsoaked past. One such man is Désiré Nimubona, founder of Burunga News, a news organization working independently of the Burundian government pushing back against the misinformation about the country. Burunga News has proven to be a source of unbiased information, but like so many in his country, Nimubona finds himself hampered by economic hardships and the reality of employing a staff he cannot pay. Despite these woes, his work continues, as Nimubona and his collection of bold reporters blaze a story of courage and steadfast commitment to integrity.
The story of Burundi is a tale of several separate atrocities, with the first occurring in 1972 when the study of genocidal events was in its academic beginnings and therefore such crimes were challenging to adequately label; another taking place in the shadow of its neighbor Rwanda in 1993; and yet another tragic round of domestic horrors carried out in late 2015. Throughout each of these violent periods, the world was collectively muted, and the suffering of Burundi’s people went embarrassingly underreported. However, it is more than just lack of global attention that has allowed Burundi’s violent legacy to fester, for their problems are compounded by a lack of truth commissions and opportunities for survivors to come forward with their stories. However, there are journalists attempting to expose a more genuine depiction of Burundi’s past to encourage reconciliation and acceptance.
The role of journalism is critical in shaping Burundi’s future. As Nimubona said, “In Kenya in 2007 and Rwanda in 1994, journalists played a great role in the crimes by inciting people to kill neighbors because of their ethnic backgrounds or their political affiliations. In Burundi, journalists wanted to tell another story.” Burundian journalists took part in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concerning the 1972 genocide, even taking part in exhuming remains. Over the course of our conversation, Nimubona repeatedly referenced the impact of education, and while social media can be a platform to spread distortion and disinformation, it also has the capacity to teach. The youth of Burundi are gaining much of their news through social media, so organizations like Burunga hope to bring legitimacy to the information being fed to the nation’s vast youth population. Two-thirds of Burundi’s population is under twenty-five and therefore only know a world of smartphones and instantaneous information; it is thus imperative for those seeking to heal the nation to reach the next generation of leaders on the media with which they are most comfortable (2).
The teaching of Burundian history in school remains a topic of some debate. While the current Burundian government recognized a genocide in 1972, how much students know about this event is debatable. To this end, Nimubona offers the tagline, “the news as it is, and not what people want it to be”, as the summary of what Burunga hopes to inspire. There have been some steps taken by the Burundian government to encourage greater exercise of free speech and journalistic freedom, including the release of four journalists jailed for acting as a security threat (3). Additionally, the recognition of a “dark past” by President Evariste Ndayishimiye is a step forward in more honestly detailing the conflict and strife faced by Burundians for decades (4). Democracy in Burundi is under thirty years old, and like many other countries in the world, many of whom have much longer histories of liberalism, it is under duress. Hate speech, violent political rhetoric, and the demonization of political opponents are increasingly becoming components of Burundian politics. It is the responsibility of independent journalism to inform and educate without fanning the flames of self-destructive rage that has been witnessed around the world, most poignantly on the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. in January 2021. The writers, researchers, and journalists for Burunga are in desperate need for support as they risk their health and lives to bring an honest assessment of Burundi’s tortured history to light. At times walking for miles and working without pay, those committed to the cause of integrity and honesty are facing enormous challenges.
1. Guichaoua, André. https://theconversation.com “Burundi at 60 is the Poorest Country on the Planet: A Look at What Went Wrong. Published August 1st, 2022