A landlocked country in Africa’s Great Lakes region, Burundi was an independent kingdom for 200 years before it was colonised during the 20th century, first from the Germans then from the Belgians. In 1962 it gained independence and in 1966 it became a presidential republic. However, the political instability that involves the entire region has caused several crises, of which the most recent was on May 2015, when a coup was attempted to depose President Pierre Nkurunziza, who tried to run for a third term which was not allowed by the constitution. The country went through heated debates and opposition groups and civil society organisations called for demonstrations. Nkurunziza’s candidature was deemed illegal by some prominent members of his own party Conseil National Pour la Défense de la Démocratie-Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie (National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy - CNDD-FDD) and the situation ended in a thwarted military coup. During the turmoil many outlets, including four important privately-owned media (Radio Publique Africaine, Radio Bonesha, Radio-Télé Renaissance and Radio Isanganiro) were destroyed and set ablaze. As of 2019, most of them are not fully operational and their journalists fled the country.
According to a 2014 survey by the company International Media and Marketing Research (IMMAR), right before the 2015 crisis, radio was the main means of communication and the most accessible news provider for at least 85 percent of the population. More and more community radio stations were established across the country and online radio stations were followed by many listeners. The survey showed that more than eight out of ten Burundians had a radio and thus had access to information provided by radio stations, while less than one in three Burundians had a TV set. The typical newspaper reader was a man aged 25 to 39, living in the city and having a fairly high standard of living, while less than one in ten Burundians, aged nine and over, used the Internet and, as for newspaper readers, the typical profile of the surfer was a man of 25 to 39 years, living in town and enjoying comfortable living standards. A new IMMAR survey to update this data is expected, with potential donors willing to fund an assessment of mainstream media. The government’s top priorities seem to revolve around the 2020 elections and no surveys or studies are available as of July 2019.
Even if the media landscape has seen many changes after 2015, radio remains the main actor. People still gather around a radio set to listen to the news, especially in the evening. However, social media and online press (even if often questionable) have become important sources of information. It is still the tiny, privileged minority of those able to buy smartphones with Internet connection that can access these sources, but apps like WhatsApp are becoming always more popular as a way to receive news items. On the other hand, television channels are not numerous and are followed by affluent people only. Even in the developed Bujumbura Mairie Province, many households do not have a TV set. For example, at major events such as international football matches, viewers move to public venues whose managers have purchased giant screens. Also print media remains very weak. Readers are only entitled to news outlets that are almost entirely supported by the government. The few private weekly magazines available try to deal with topics not covered by daily newspapers, which have a very limited circulation. In a context of financial precariousness and oral tradition, Burundian civil servants and citizens, at large, rarely buy newspapers, which count on the subscriptions of some international organisations and public and private institutions. Rural dwellers are the most disadvantaged in the consumption of all types of media. Not only they lack the means to follow the news, but also their concerns are rarely addressed by the media. The situation is still very similar to the one noted by Eva Palmans in her study of 2009 Les media audiovisuels au Burundi: "in a largely rural country, whose population is scattered on the hills and facing the primary needs of survival, it is not obvious that the media reach their audience."
Some media are directly or indirectly linked to politicians and their content is a reflection of the views of those who set them up. Public media such as the Radio Télévision Nationale du Burundi (Burundi National Radio and Television - RTNB), Le Renouveau and the Agence Burundaise de Presse (Burundian Press Agency - ABP) give almost exclusively information related to the activities of the authorities. In its written report of 5 October, 2018, the Conseil National de la Communication (National Communication Council - CNC) pointed out that: "the non-respect of the principle of balance and pluralism of information is noticed on the RTNB. Almost all the information disseminated is related to the activities of the government and its various departments or territorial entities."
With the destruction in 2015 of the emblematic Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), at the time enjoying countrywide coverage, and of Radio-Télé Renaissance, mostly watched in Bujumbura, RTNB has again become a powerful tool in the hands of the government, which is anxious to publicise its endeavors and stabilise the country. The activity of these destroyed media had pushed public media to slightly open up, by occasionally presenting the microphone to political opponents and having leaders of political parties and vocal leaders of civil society organisations interviewed by news chief editors. Also private media launched by the ruling party, such as Radio Rema FM and Rema Television, are serving the government's agenda against political opponents and leaders of civil society organisations who are forced to exile. The voices of the leaders of civil society close to the government are the most heard. All the others find that the government has narrowed the public space and only opens it to actors who play its game or simply comply with the current internal political mainstream. The report of the Union Burundaise des Journalistes (Burundian Union of Journalists - UBJ) of January 2019 highlights the harmful nature of this complicity: "Playing the game" means, according to the philosopher Alain Deneault, "accepting unofficial practices that serve short-sighted interests, submitting to rules by turning a blind eye to the unsaid, the unthought-of that the game is to accept not to name such a name in such a report, to ignore this, not to mention that, to allow the arbitrariness to gain the upper hand. In the end, playing the game is, by cheating, to generate corrupt institutions." The few independent media of Burundi operate in a context of fear but they still try to give voice to actors with no access to public media. But overall, their level of public service has dropped significantly with the destruction of 2015. In the light of the closing of large stations like BBC and Voice of America (VOA), media owners know that the government will not hesitate to repress any observed discrepancies. However outlets such as SOS Médias Burundi, Humura Burundi and Inzamba freely air news and are followed on WhatsApp and Facebook or Twitter. The excessive intervention of the regulatory body under the authority of state officials is another factor negatively affecting the professionalism of media. Many journalists feel to be working in an environment contrary to the rules of ethics and deontology and the public has less and less trust in them.