Burundi and the media

The Mail and Guardian (M&G), a weekly South African newspaper, likes to present itself as one of the best investigative and critical newspapers in the country. This week, the newspaper reports that: “Burundians this week cast their ballots in a poll that should finally end decades of skewed ethnic politics….”

Compare that assessment with what the newspaper wrote about the Zimbabwe elections in March this year: “Leading European Union officials are warning that the general elections in Zimbabwe on Thursday will be a sham.”

From the newspaper that claims to be critical, one would expect some consistency in skepticism when reporting about elections in conflict-ridden areas. However, when it comes to Burundi, the skepticism and the criticalness, that the newspaper prides itself of, goes out of the window. Instead what one finds is an air of assurance, with the underlying message that everything is in order in Burundi – maybe just a few hiccups here and there, but nothing serious.

In the same article (entitled “Tale of two elections” by Jean-Jacques Cornish); the M&G reports that: “The senate and the National Assembly, both comfortably under Nkurunzinza’s control, will elect the president next month.”

In reality, nothing is comfortable in Burundi. The Forces of National Liberation (FNL), still refuses to sign the ceasefire agreement, and continues to wage war. Even Pierre Nkurunzinza’s organization, Forces for the Defence of Democracy (FDD), joined the peace process at a very late stage. When the transition of power began two years ago, Nkurunzinza, who now we are told is “comfortably” heading the National Assembly and the senate, was busy mobilizing his forces to wage war. At the time, Nkurunziza was demanding that a new charter of transition be implemented in place of the existing Arusha Accord. The Arusha Accord has not been replaced by any new charter of transition, but, if we are to believe the media, what has change is how Nkurunziza feels about it. Now that he is “comfortably” heading the National Assembly, he has suddenly realized his folly; so we are told.

According to the Burundi’s transition constitution, the next head of state will be elected in the legislature by assemblymen and senators. You will remember, as the M&G reports, “the senate and the National Assembly [are] both comfortably under Nkurunziza’s control.”

Now contrast the above statement with how the newspaper wrote about Zimbabwe. “Mugabe has introduced some electoral reforms, such as election commission and court to run the polls. But in spite of these moves, human rights groups have raised concerns about the climate of fear….”

In another article on Zimbabwe by the same newspaper, we are told that: “Zimbabwe’s opposition is steeling itself for defeat in this week’s parliamentary elections as new allegations emerge of plans to rig the ballot. Veteran observers such as Pius Ncube, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, believe the opposition has already lost the elections.”

In Burundi, Nkurunziza, a warlord, is reported to be heading the senate and the National Assembly “comfortably”. Unlike the article on Zimbabwe, we are not told what the human rights groups think about the elections in that country. Neither is there an assessment of what the political climate looks like. What the newspaper has to report, however, is that Nkurunziza is heading the senate and the National Assembly “comfortably”.

What are the “veteran observers” think about the process in Burundi, that we are not told. Neither are we told about the opposition, if there is any. However, the newspaper does assure us that: “He [meaning Nkurunziza] even turned on erstwhile ally and fellow Hutu rebel leader Agathon Rwasa whose FNL remain the last fighters still at arms.”

Why the newspaper is at pains to portray Nkurunziza in a positive light is anyone’s guess. To be fair to the newspaper, the M&G does attempt to criticize the man. “The Mail and Guardian noted Nkurunziza’s presidential swagger many months ago,” reports the paper. The man is a warlord and is only participating in the transition process simply because, as the newspaper pointed it out, the “senate and the National Assembly [are] both comfortably under [his] control.”

Reporting on Zimbabwe, the newspaper does not tell us that Mugabe is heading the National Assembly comfortably; rather, we are told: “Mugabe has appointed members of his own clan, the Zezuru, to every important position in the party, including his new vice-president, Joyce Mujuru.”

The complaint about Nkurunziza, a warlord, is that he has a swagger; whereas the complaints about Mugabe are endless. He is appointing his own members of his own clan, human rights groups are raising concerns about a climate of fear, and the opposition and “veteran observers” believe that the elections will be rigged way before the elections even took place.

A warlord, Pierre Nkurunziza, is described as heading the senate and the National Assembly “comfortably”. The newspaper goes further to say, though Nkurunziza was a latecomer to the peace process, “once in the swing of it, Nkurunziza participated enthusiastically.” The high standards of skepticism and criticism that Mugabe is subjected to, suddenly disappears when the topic is Nkurunziza.

The newspaper does not even feel obliged to provide evidence to back the claim that the senate and the National Assembly are being headed “comfortably” by Nkurunziza. Readers are expected to take it as a fact that all is comfortable and running smooth.

If the peace process and the elections going on in Burundi right now were not a matter of life and death for the Burundians, then one would simply dismiss this as incompetence. But when there are people dying, and when the conflict there has already claimed about 300 000 lives, according to the UN, this is unacceptable.