Burundi journalists form group to push press freedom

Piga Picha, or "take a picture" in Swahili, as the group is known, is pushing the limits of Burundi's free press.

BUJUMBURA // Evrard Niyomwungere is normally laid-back Burundian journalist. That is until his freedom of expression is threatened. This week, as the 25-year-old cameraman and photojournalist was documenting Burundi's first presidential election since the end of the country's civil war, an election worker accused him of filing a report that contained false information.

The report said election workers were signing off on vote count lists and leaving the final total blank, to be filled in later by nefarious individuals looking to inflate the vote count. The police were called in and a melee ensued. The officers tried to confiscate Niyomwungere's tape and threatened to haul his colleague off to jail. Journalists and police officers were shouting at each other. Niyomwungere was nose to nose with the head officer, his eyes bloodshot with rage.

Finally, cooler heads prevailed and the journalists agreed to say their report was based on rumours and unverified sources. Police harassment is just one of the many challenges journalists face in this tiny central African country. Niyomwungere has joined a newly formed group of like-minded Burundian visual journalists who have been documenting the country's recent history. Piga Picha, or "take a picture" in Swahili, as the group is known, is pushing the limits of Burundi's free press.

The group, which includes five Burundian photographers and videographers, is the brainchild of Martina Bacigalupo, an Italian photographer who has spent three years in Burundi and has taught workshops to local photojournalists. "There is no culture of a good quality image here," she said. "I wanted to pass on a culture of the image and create a group so that we could learn in the field." Piga Picha, which has some support from the French Embassy and is looking for more donors, began documenting the country's local elections in May. Right away they ran into some of the other challenges that journalists here face: violent reprisals, death threats and censorship.

While covering an opposition rally, Niyomwungere and his colleagues were surrounded by an angry mob that ripped at his clothes and grabbed at his camera. The mob threatened to pummel the journalists with rocks. "Someone had a stone close to my face," he said. "I felt like I was in front of a lion who wanted to eat me." The end products of the group's work are provocative audio slideshows that air each night on Renaissance Television, a local independent station. The black and white slideshows, which include coverage of protests and grenade attacks, have been mostly well received and are a welcome alternative to local media coverage of official talking heads. The National Communications Council, however, has called their work "suspicious" and "scary."

"The reaction has been very positive," said Teddy Mazina, a Piga Picha photographer. "This is activism." But activism in a country like Burundi without a vibrant free press can often be dangerous. Burundi ranks 103 out of 175 countries on the press freedom index from Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog. "Several incidents directly affecting Burundian journalists and media have been reported in the past few weeks," the Paris-based group said recently. "These abuses are particularly serious in a country that was still enjoying a degree of calm a few months ago."

Another issue Piga Picha has had to deal with is self-censorship. The head of Renaissance Television, Innocent Muhozi, has been known to push the boundaries, but has recently faced death threats from political parties. When Piga Picha was putting together a recent slideshow, the group decided to cut a video clip of a protest where police started firing into a crowd. Muhozi was out of the country when the slideshow was being produced, and the group did not want to cause problems for the station owner while he was away.

"If he was in the country, he probably would have been OK with the footage," Bacigalupa said. "But since he wasn't here, we decided to leave it out." Another important mandate for Piga Picha is to create a lasting bank of images from the country's historic moments - a sort of Burundian press photo agency. During the country's civil war from 1993 until the final rebel group was disarmed last year, few photographers - Burundian or international - covered the conflict and there are few images to tell the story.

"Today you can tell people what happened, but nobody has a single picture of the killings," said Emmanuel Heri, a Piga Picha videographer. "It is important to say things about this country that you can't normally say." mbrown@thenational.ae