[This article originally appeared in the Winter 1997 issue of Nieman Reports.]

“Don’t trust them. They are killers, liars and completely mad.”

It’s been three years since a Special United Nations representative conveyed that advice to me in Burundi, Rwanda’s lesser known southern neighbor. It …I put forward the notion of a ‘public media’…. All program topics should emerge out of the needs of the communities, both Hutu and Tutsi, and not the political needs of the ruling elite or the military.was meant, I supposed, as a cautionary word against naive hopes on working for the first time in one of the world’s most violently divided societies.

An estimated 200,000 people have been killed in Burundi since 1993, when extremist elements of the Tutsi military killed Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu and the first democratically elected president. Mass killing of Tutsis by Hutus followed, and the country immediately split into two deeply divided ethnic-political blocs, Hutu versus Tutsi. The media not only reflected on this division but also actively promoted it. The media in Africa were already haunted by the role that Radio Milles Collines played in the Rwandan genocide as Western-educated Managing Director Ferdinand Nahimana broadcast programming calling for the extermination of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994.

In 1995 Burundi Hutu and Tutsi media continued in this path under the banner of “free speech” to rival each other over calls to kill, or in packaging and advancing their mutually macabre ideologies. A Hutu radio [station] from Zaire broadcast a steady stream of propaganda calling on the population to join an armed struggle against the government. The media generated mutual terror and distrust based on historical fears.

In this context Studio Ijambo was established in May 1995 by a Washington-based nonprofit organization called Search for Common Ground, with a grant from the United States Agency for International Development. One foreigner, myself, and a committed group of five Burundian journalists, from both ethnic groups, set up Studio Ijambo as an alternative for reporters interested in trying to bring the values of good journalism into play. The premise of the project was that local journalists could make a significant contribution to opening and maintaining avenues of public discourse.

Search for Common Ground, understanding the constraints of the culture, provided specialized training to the local staff. This training combined the basic tenets of good reporting with additional techniques in negotiation and consensus building. These techniques offered a way for journalists to explore different ways of asking questions in an effort to get past postures and to avoid inadvertently reinforcing negative stereotypes.

The challenges in achieving this goal were deeply rooted in the culture of the conflict itself. Burundi has a population of approximately 6,000,000 people distributed, as in Rwanda, in densely crowded agrarian hillside communities. Overcrowding, rigid family loyalty, and regional and ethnic identification mean that journalists must counter incredible pressure to attain even the most basic degree of objectivity. In Burundi, being “independent” is equated with betrayal, and therefore the notion of independence itself is alien and dangerous.

Studio Ijambo evolved against a backdrop of worsening security and increased violence. While I was recruiting and training journalists in May and June of 1995, the ethnic cleansing of Bujumbura, the capital, pushed 40,000 people into exile in Zaire and left hundreds dead. The slide into anarchy seemed to create a crucial point of commonality for the Hutu and Tutsi journalists we had recruited and seemed to be an important motivating factor in their desire to want to join forces as professionals.

The Studio Ijambo reporters began working in multiethnic teams to assure balance and credibility. The Balkanization of Bujumbura had made reporting physically impossible for a single journalist from either side. Tutsis feared for their lives in Hutu neighborhoods, and Hutus were equally terrified in Tutsi neighborhoods. By working together, reporters were able to provide the balance and accuracy that would come to define our programming.

In August of 1995 we convinced The National Radio of Burundi (RTNB) to provide two 45-minute air slots per week. The agreement was part of an attempt by the state media to quell criticism that it was overtly biased and to show that it was open to collaboration with outside producers. Under the terms, RTNB could refuse to broadcast a program but was not allowed to re-edit programs that had been submitted. All programs would be signed with “Studio Ijambo” credit.

In establishing the editorial policy for the studio, I put forward the notion of a “public media” as a model where the primary source of information would be the population. All program topics should emerge out of the needs of the communities, both Hutu and Tutsi, and not the political needs of the ruling elite or the military. In essence this was an inversion of the model that had existed in Burundi since independence. More importantly, getting these programs aired on the state media was an important achievement. A small minority of journalists from the national radio indicated that our programming had pushed the editorial line enough so that they could try to provide more balanced programs.

Our goal was to position the studio as a neutral and independent voice and to be inclusive of all sides. Journalists balanced recorded testimonies from communities with roundtable discussions that included policymakers and key political players. The roundtables were highly structured to include at least three positions and were moderated by two Ijambo reporters. This meant long hours of editing but assured that there was enough material from all sides to produce inclusive and original radio. Each program served as a kind of intersection of views, reactions and ideas. This inclusive method of production inevitably challenged prevailing notions and stereotypes.…

We worked hard to develop techniques of verifying information in a culture of secrecy. We would cover areas in two teams simultaneously going to hospitals, markets, neighboring communities. We compared times of gunshots, when people passed, how many. If there were wounded, where were they? If there were dead, where were the bodies? We built contacts within the military, and we developed contacts among the civilian population so that stories could be corroborated with sufficient accuracy.

Studio Ijambo was soon breaking stories over the telephone line to Radio Agatashya in Zaire 250 miles away while the Burundian National Radio either didn’t have the information or was trying to sit on it until they could put a spin on it. Amazingly, journalists from within the state media started to provide us with information that they themselves couldn’t use but knew we would be able to corroborate and send to Radio Agatashya as part of our daily news package.

As anywhere, providing information faster and more in-depth translated into credibility and respect by listeners. Studio Ijambo journalists traveled throughout the country, and by extensive interviewing of local officials and community leaders we built important relationships and sources. We made clear the distinction between “on-the-record” and “off-the-record” and used information carefully knowing it could be traced back to our sources. We were actually introducing a methodology for independent reporting to Burundi during a war, which had never been tried even in times of peace.

Local officials and administrators respected that we did not manipulate or distort their views. We realized that there were nuances within communities, the military leadership, and even the political leadership that had been obscured by the lack of good reporting. Furthermore, the more the journalists worked and interacted with the different sectors in visibly multiethnic teams, the more viable good fact-based reporting became.

The added exposure provided credibility but also a high visibility that meant increased risk to the staff. We consciously played down our role in order to avoid being perceived as a kind of opposition voice to one or both prevailing extremes. We used Tutsis to report on the activities of the primarily Tutsi army and used Hutus to report on the attacks by the Hutu rebels. This gave the reports credibility and authenticity since people knew the journalists by their voices.

The only protection we had was to be balanced and persistent and to work with studied transparency. We used phone lines presuming they were bugged; we called the military with any information we planned to use to give them the first option of responding. We constantly called the presidency asking for more information.…

In November 1996 Studio Ijambo journalists began regularly filing daily dispatches to wire services such as AFP [Agence France-Presse], Reuters and the Associated Press. This was an important shift since the presence of a credible team of local journalists in Burundi made the international coverage of the conflict more consistent and more accurate. Subscribers to wire service reports were getting a steady stream of information on Burundi even if it didn’t always appear in major newspapers. Nelson Mandela, in refusing to advocate the lifting of sanctions on Burundi, cited “recent news reports of atrocities” as a principal reason. These reports came from Studio Ijambo.

Studio Ijambo continues to operate, providing wire service reports and public affairs programming to the national radio as well as news programming to international radios. In the 24 months of production prior to my leaving in June 1997, Studio Ijambo had produced an estimated 2,500 feature programs, news reports, and wire service reports including the coverage of over 40 massacres involving the national army or attacks by armed rebels. These reports are more than news because they exist as the sole documentation of historical events, many of which would have been conveniently displaced by political interests.

In telling this story I have obviously reduced the complexity of our work to its basic elements in hopes of illustrating how our methods of reporting evolved in a context such as Burundi. I haven’t really portrayed the energy and courage of the Burundian journalists who at every point were forced to challenge themselves as journalists, stretching to redefine the concept of themselves in relation to the often tragic stories they had to tell.

Bryan Rich has been Senior International Producer for Search for Common Ground since 1992. A 1998 Nieman Fellow, he has worked in Russia, Liberia, Bosnia and Macedonia and has just returned from two and a half years in Burundi.

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