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‘Burundi Times’ story on detained journo reveals limited media space

Formal journalism training schools dedicate ample time to rudimentary requirements for news storytelling.

Learners are asked to seek immediate answers to a number of questions to satisfy Rudyard Kipling’s 5Ws+1H: what incident happened? Who was involved? When? Where? Why? and HOW did it happen? That line of old-age pedagogy served the legacy media well over many years.

However, with the advent of the Internet and its innumerable sources of information, there’s a need to add value to the known by answering a number of other germane questions on behalf of news consumers: something happened, so what? How does it affect me? Why should I care? In short, today’s consumers are in a state of over-choice. They’re exposed to loads of information, some from individual creators and self-publishing bloggers who, many times, are not edited for basic journalistic ethical requirements such as balance, truth, and fairness.

As a result, the truth becomes a moving target. In this era of information overload, those reporting in formal media houses must strive to truthfully address as many aspects of an incident as possible to attain believability. However, this novel demand is thoroughly frustrated in countries where the ruling class has imposed suffocating restrictions on the operational spaces for the media and the civil society. The resultant constrictions do not only make media reports from those countries narrow and tasteless. They also stifle journalistic creativity and confine the public in a pit of collective ignorance and helplessness.

Take the example of Burundi Times. On Thursday, April 18, 2024, the online publication went to town with a story on “various organisations of media professionals” demanding the release of Burundian journalist Sandra Muhoza “who was arrested on Saturday, April 13, 2024.”

A keen reader could easily smell a tinge of arrested media freedom by looking at the first paragraph of the story. It was titled, Burundi: Media organizations call for the release of a detained journalist’, and nosed off thus: “A Burundian journalist Sandra Muhoza who works for a local media house in Burundi was arrested since last Saturday April, 13th, 2024 according to a joint statement issued by various organizations of media professionals that included the Burundi Press House and the Association of Female Journalists in Burundi.”

Chocking under the burden of detail, the intro revealed a deliberate effort by the writer and the publication to run to the agora with the disclaimer: ‘It wasn’t us (who said it); it was those organisations of media professionals.’ That unprofessional approach to intro writing smacked of an atmosphere of fear and intimidation of journalists and the media. It’s instructive that Burundi Times didn’t reveal the name of the reporter. This level of media gag by those in power leads to an adulterated content unworthy of the pages/spaces on which they’re published.

Another seeming indicator of the nagging albatross of official control over journalists and the media in Burundi was in para 3: “Sandra Muhoza is a journalist for an online media La Nova, according to netizens and information that surfaced on various online platforms. Ms Muhoza purportedly exchanged comments in a WhatsApp group with her colleagues that was regarded as sensitive to the community and inaccurate.” Pray, even Ms Muhoza’s identity and where she works – common facts – were attributed to some faceless people?

There is a direct comparison to the shape, nature, depth, and scope of the Burundi Times story. On the same day, an AFP wire copy – filed from the safety of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi – on the same issue was direct, and to the point:

“Sandra Muhoza, a Burundian journalist, on Friday was charged with “endangering internal security,” an offense that risks up to life in prison, her lawyers and relatives said. Muhoza was detained by the National Intelligence Service last weekend in Burundi’s economic capital Bujumbura.

 “Security services arrested the 42-year-old journalist after comments she allegedly made in a WhatsApp group of practitioners discussing an alleged distribution of machetes to Imbonerakure, members of the ruling CNDD-FDD party’s youth league, according to her lawyer and relatives.”

The AFP copy also gave important background for perspective: “It is not the first time journalists have been targeted in Burundi, a deeply impoverished nation which has a poor record for press freedom and human rights. Global press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, known by its French acronym RSF, on Monday voiced its concerns about her arrest and detention. Last year, RSF ranked Burundi 114th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom. In 2023, journalist Floriane Irangabiye was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “undermining the integrity of the national territory”, although the grounds of the charge are unknown.”

Lesson learnt? That restrictive government conditions on the media have direct negative impacts on press freedom, human rights and arrests the general intellectual growth of journalists and the people.

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