BY Jessica Hatcher

INSI Eye: Safety advice for journalists in Burundi

Things can change rapidly in Bujumbura: within hours, foreign journalists can turn from friends into foes due to perceptions that they are partial to one side or the other. 

The areas where you need to be careful are largely confined to neighbourhoods where there are regular protests, and neighbourhoods where there are vocal loyalists. Protestors’ neighbourhoods include: Cibitoke, Nyakabiga, Musaga, Kinama and Buterere. On the whole, these are poor areas where people are renting, many of them coming from outside of the capital, and the youth are considered easy to mobilise. Neighbourhoods where there are many CNDD-FDD party supporters, and where insecurity has occurred to date, include Kanyosha and Kamenge. 

Staying neutral is imperative. As is looking out for the safety of your fixers, translators and drivers. We laminated ID cards for ours, as there is real potential for someone to be caught in a neighbourhood where they’re not known and accused of being an enemy or a spy, or targeted by police. 

Many hotels will negotiate on rates, given the absence of tourists. I stayed at the Star Hotel, which I liked for its centrality, security and affordability. It’s in between the ruling party’s headquarters and the centre of town on the road out to the airport, so if there is fighting in town, the chances are you’ll hear it, possibly even see it. 

Foreign journalists are not targets, but local journalists are having a very hard time. Most are not working, some have fled the country citing attempts on their life.

On the day there was heavy fighting after the attempted coup, we were able to drive around and interact with security forces even at a very tense time. Bursts of gunfire are sporadic––but it’s important to remember that, more often than not, the police or soldiers are firing into the air. Sometimes they shoot blanks. Although, as we have seen from the injuries, they do also fire into the crowds.

It’s very hot and humid from May to July. There are also mosquitos, and malaria.

In May, independent radio stations were attacked by pro-government forces and temporarily shut down. International television and radio broadcasts have therefore become a critical source of information. Expect people to be watching France24, and listening to RFI. And expect people to get angry with you for representing either of them, even if you don’t. The day the media announced that the May coup had failed, we drove to Musaga and found the same people who had been very welcoming the day before were now hostile and threatening to burn our car––because they felt the media had betrayed them by broadcasting the message that the government was back in charge.

As we moved into the fourth week of the protests, police and army started making it harder to report, often blocking people from entering neighbourhoods where there was tension between the protestors and police. You must have accreditation––a whopping $300.

I was told by protestors in Buterere that they had an old hunting rifle (which the police also claimed), but on the whole, it doesn’t seem that they’re fighting with arms. They throw rocks instead, so a helmet is important if you’re going where there are clashes. And similarly a flak jacket if you’re on the protestor’s side. There are usually plenty of places to find cover: people huddle a safe distance from the fighting in shop doorways and behind walls. But try to keep protective gear with you at all times; it’s extraordinary how quickly a relaxed street scene can turn into a fight.

INSI Eye is a series of safety updates written by journalists on the ground.

British magazine journalist Jessica Hatcher works in East Africa, primarily in Kenya, DR Congo, Somalia, and South Sudan.


Image by Jessica Hatcher