| The Courier: - N°153 - Sept- Oct 1995 Dossier Southern Africa - Country Reports Namibia; Djibouti |
TackIing the worst excesses
by Manuela Varrasso
'To be Hutu or Tutsi in Burundi is to remember who killed someone close to you, 15 years ago, or to wonder who is going to kill your child ten years hence. Each time there is a different reply. This is not a fear without substance. For 30 years, it has been invoked in this region of Africa to increase awareness of one's own ethnic history- and the victimisation that goes with it-and as a means of denouncing others.' this quotation comes from a 1988 text published by 'Reporters Sans Frontieres' (RSF), the international organisation for the defence of press freedom'.
As a follow-up to the above, RSF has recently published an in-depth study, with support from the European Commission, entitled 'Burundi, the poison of hatred-a study of extremist media' 2. The aim is to alert international opinion to the 'interethnic confrontation' being played out in this small central African country with the full participation of much of the media.
The authors, Barnabe Ndarishikanye, assistant at the Faculty of Economic Sciences in Bujumbura, and Jean-FranÃ§ois Dupaquier, a journalist, conducted their survey from July to October 1994. In their report, they make a series of accusations against the 'media of hatred' that exists in the country. They also draw attention to the non-application of ethical principles throughout the so-called 'democratic' or 'independent' press. In Burundi, it appears, the media is democratic and independent in name only!
Avoiding the ravages of 'ethnisation'
The so-called inescapable 'logic' of ethnic confrontation, which resulted in genocide in neighbouring Rwanda, was central to the propaganda broadcast by the infamous Radio Television des Mille Collines (Thousand Hills Radio and Television). This study does not attempt to explain the crisis in Burundi by simplistic analogy with Rwanda, but rather to identify-and denounce-the political 'manipulation' of ethnicity which is actively supported by elements in the extremist Burundi media. There is an awareness in Burundi of the dangers the country faces and this awareness could help ensure that the worst fears are not realised. 'In its misery, Burundi needs clear-cut media coverage... Only in denouncing death-dealing proposals and projects can we stop the infernal yet resistible spiral of manipulation on ethnic grounds'. These are the words of historian, Jean-Pierre Chretien, in his introduction to the work. He continues: 'Hatred between Hutus and Tutsis has become a feature of society in Burundi nowadays. Is it that we are being forced to watch the emergence of a reality which has remained concealed for too long ? Or are we entitled to express surprise at a phenomenon, portrayed as being perfectly natural, which was all but invisible in the culture of the old Burundi...? The ethnic conflict which inspires such dread would, in fact, appear to be quite a recent development. It is thus essential to examine the contemporary situation, looking beyond the over-simplifications which imply that Hutus and Tutsis will be tearing each other apart until the end of time'.
Independent press isolated
With this in mind the authors observe that it is rare for the media to engage in proper research leading to the publication of the truth. Of the 29 publications covered by the study, only five appeared to meet strict ethical criteria. Three were private sector publications: La Semaine (neutral, ceased publication in September 1994), Panafrica (a satirical journal) and Le Phare (a neutral bimonthly). The other two are the government dailies, Le Renouveau and Ubumwe. These provide the kind of national and international news which other journals ignore, the latter focusing heavily on partisan disputes. So the overall score is one publication in six, which is pretty poor!
Prohibiting extremist publications
Reporters Sans Frontieres argues in favour of banning those media operations that are being used as the tools of both Tutsi and Hutu extremism. (Tutsi-la Nation, le Carrefour des Idees, l'Etoile: Hutu-le Miroir, le Temoin, I'Eclaireur and Radio Rutomorangingo, which is the Burundi equivalent of Rwanda's Radio Television des Mille Collines.)
RSF's objective, in the current emergency situation, is to point the finger of blame at a number of malevolent publications which have fanned the flames. One might cite here, the following text from Le Carrefour des Idees, a journal which has not hesitated to use the language of cannibalism to convey its message of hatred: 'After killing him, they cut out his heart and killed his ox. Then they mixed the two meats to make kebabs'.
The excesses are so great as to seem almost caricatures. Incitements to hatred, whether on social, political or religious grounds, abound.
Encouraging the 'moderates'
It is not enough to ban extremist publications of course. One must also encourage 'moderate' newspapers to treat journalistic ethics with respect. Although not all journals indulge in the excesses described above, many are seen as deliberately manipulating opinion: Thus, for example, according to the radical Tutsi publication Le Patriote; 'It is out of the question that the next Head of State should come from the Frodebu' (10 May 1994).
In general terms, the authors of the study deplore the 'imbalance of information' that exists in Burundi. This is reflected in the one-sided presentation of 'facts' and in partisan editorialising, which make it easy to identify the political or ethnic backing behind the publication in question. This is without even investigating their sources of finance, which would require a more in-depth enquiry.
Gossip and rumour
The study also highlights the use of 'gossip and rumour' as a key element in disinformation. 'Facts' presented are neither verified nor confirmed. Often they are reproduced straight from conversations heard at the bar. This country has an oral cultural background and a Central Africa tradition of conviviality (much admired by visitors) which leads to spontaneous exchanges of information. As far as journalists are concerned, according to the authors, this needs to be backed up with more professionalism and a genuine investigative spirit.
The assistance being provided by RSF is targeted at both the independent media and the above-mentioned publications linked to the authorities. With European Commission assistance, the organisation supports journals which reject the division of the press along tribal lines and which undertake to respect professional ethics. Any Burundi publication can approach RSF to request reimbursement of a portion of its printing costs, provided it signs the 'Ethical Charter' negotiated beforehand between the RSF and the Burundi press. Local RSF correspondents in Bujumbura are responsible for checking adherence to the Charter. Non-compliance leads to the withdrawal of aid from the journal in question. In addition, every month, a panel of professional representatives from the Burundi press awards a modest prize to encourage the authors of the best articles which have appeared in the country's media.