Unfortunately, in Burkina Faso violent conflicts are on the rise. A group of committed journalists is working against this trend by establishing the PaxSahel reporting platform with colleagues from neighboring countries.
"When I'm doing research, I prefer to go out without a microphone into markets or sidewalk cafes," said 35-year-old radio journalist Jean-Carem Kaboré, acknowledging the distrust his fellow countrymen have of the press. Listening and building trust are important aspects of his work. Nevertheless, Kaboré always carries a microphone, pen and paper but keeps them in his backpack. Reporting is what he does best.
"As a journalist, you have to be on location. That way you get different information first-hand," he said. However, the journalist does not conduct interviews on the street but at his workplace in the offices of "Radio rurale du Burkina," (Rural Radio Burkina) a radio station in Burkina Faso, West Africa. To make his guests feel welcome and to show that he appreciates their presence, Kaboré always hands them a small plastic bottle of water.
Radio rurale du Burkina is part of the national radio and television company of Burkina Faso, Radiodiffusion-Télévision de Burkina (RTB). It is headquartered in the center of Ouagadougou, the country's capital and home to two million people. The building is a typical 70s design, square and functional. Inside, the walls are painted a sandy yellow color that has not seen a new coat for some time.
Several hundred people work at RTB, 55 of them at Radio rurale du Burkina. On this afternoon, the studios are mostly empty with little trace of the hectic atmosphere typical of most newsrooms. Some journalists are doing research on their computers while others are enjoying the cool wind flowing from strategically placed fans. Most are drinking instant coffee and discussing the new legislation passed in June 2019 which prohibits them from reporting on terrorist acts before the government has issued an official press release. The legislation has made their work as journalists much harder as such attacks need to be covered by them and their colleagues around the country.
Reports from a conflict area
Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 40 per cent of the population living below the poverty line. The country is also suffering from the negative effects of climate change as once productive farmland is being devoured by withered, dead fields. More and more people are losing their main source of income and are leaving their villages for the city. But even there, good jobs are scarce.
Moderator and trainer Abdoulaye Quattara teaches how to make high quality and balanced reports with the mobile phone
For a long time Burkina Faso was considered the most stable country in the Sahel. But the number of attacks by militant groups has increased, as have local conflicts between ethnic groups. These developments have made the job of a journalist much more dangerous. The West African country has a diverse and pluralistic media landscape and in terms of press freedom, Reporters Without Borders rates the country as one of the success stories on the African continent. But the increasingly tense security situation–especially in the north of the country–has made it difficult or even impossible for reporters to do their job. In order to avoid becoming targets themselves, some journalists do not file any stories about conflicts or they censor themselves. Others have chosen to report one-sidedly, resorting to clichés and thus contributing to the escalation.
To counter this trend, the Réseau d'Initiatives de Journalistes (RIJ), an association of media professionals, has committed itself to balanced, conflict-sensitive reporting. Their journalists produce high-quality reporting that courageously opposes the increasing violence in the country. Kaboré is one of these reporters. He has hosted a radio program since 2017 on which he regularly reports on the growing conflicts, most frequently those between shepherds and farmers.
"There is less and less arable land here," he said while taking a short break. "Conflicts between individuals always lead to disputes between entire communities."
It was clear in his voice how much the tense situation in his homeland troubles him. In the past, Burkina Faso was known for its tolerant coexistence of different ethnic groups and religions. Today, conflicts seem to be escalating more easily.
In Yirgou in the north of the country, for example, there was a massacre in early January 2019 in which 49 people died. That number comes from official figures but local sources put the number of dead at 200. The cause was six unsolved murders, including that of a village chief. The inhabitants of the village, most of whom are Mossi, the largest ethnic group in Burkina Faso, suspected cattle ranchers of the Peulh ethnic group. Alleging threats to their security, the self-defense militia Koglweogo retaliated, causing 6,000 people to flee in panic. The massacre at Yirgou has been traumatic for Burkina Faso. After the killings, members of the Mossi and Peulh and some 60 other ethnic groups demonstrated together for tolerance and against hate. It is a complex issue that Kaboré approaches with systematic research and careful choice of words.
Learning from Rwanda
In 1994, 75% of the Tutsi ethnic minority were murdered in Rwanda by the Hutu majority. According to reports, the killings were incited by a local radio station and an estimated 800,000 to one million people were killed. The genocide of Rwanda also left deep scars in Burkina Faso. In 2000, the DED, the German Development Service, started an initiative in Burkina Faso to train journalists in order to prevent such a genocide in the future. Media professionals were taught that their reporting has the power to influence public opinion and fuel sentiment but can also be used to de-escalate crises. Seven years later, this group formed its own organization, the RIJ, that is now a project partner of DW Akademie. The goal of the partnership is to improve the quality of reporting and media services in Burkina Faso.
RIJ now has 300 volunteer members from radio, television, print, and online media. One of them is Romaine Raissa Zidouemba, a long-time radio journalist for RTB who has been RIJ's coordinator since January 2019.
Burkina Faso was long considered the most stable country in the Sahel. Today the conflicts are increasing
"With the support of DW Akademie we have built up a pool of trainers. We offer advanced training on conflict-sensitive journalism and on how to produce content using a mobile phone, so-called ‘mobile reporting,’" she said. The best participants are then trained to become part of the country's network of trainers.
Radio reporter Kaboré is now responsible for RIJ communications and knows the aims of the association very well. In 2017, he submitted one of his reports for the "PaxSahel Prize," a competition for conflict-sensitive journalism in the region, which was launched by the RIJ with the support of the DW Akademie.
"I won the prize even though I didn't know what conflict-sensitive journalism actually meant!" he recalled. It has always been important for Kaboré to interview various people involved in his research, check sources and then report independently. "But I used to report more on instinct," he said.
Since the award ceremony, Kaboré has taken part in two training courses on conflict-sensitive journalism with lasting success. Today he writes his reports even more consciously and pays special attention to every word he says in his radio presentations.
"The focus of my reporting is no longer just on the problems but on possible solutions and I avoid offensive language and prejudices," he said.
Conflict-sensitive journalism is an enormous task
Kaboré's colleague Abdoulaye Quattara works in Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso's second largest city located in the west of the country. He is a correspondent there for the radio station "Ouaga FM" and is now also an experienced trainer with DW Akadamie. After a five-hour drive over bumpy roads, Quattara arrived in the capital for the advanced training course "Mobile Journalism for Advanced Students."
When he stopped on the way to stretch his legs, the journalist was recognized by people at the roadside who pulled out their phones to take selfies with him. People want a photo with Quattara not just because he is on the radio but also because he is the co-organizer of a fairytale festival popular in the country. He is also regularly invited to appear on TV talk shows. Quattara witnessed the October 2014 uprising, when a series of protest and riots broke out over the longtime rule of then President Blaise Compaoré and forced him to flee the country.
"If you had talked about neutral reporting and peace after the 2014 uprising, you would have been suspected of supporting the government," he explained. Nowadays, he said, the population understands that the press has an independent role and is not supposed to be either for or against the government.
RIJ is so far the only association in Burkina Faso that supports conflict-sensitive contributions by journalists and makes them available online. Article after article is discussed, analyzed, and corrected. Only then is it published. Each year, around 36 journalists receive continuous training.
"When you look at the first reports and compare them with those written a year later, you notice a big difference," said RIJ coordinator Zidouemba. "After a while, the journalists take it upon themselves not to use insulting or discriminatory words and interview not only government officials or village leaders, but also people on the street," she continued.
The training courses for conflict-sensitive reporting are also popular in the neighboring countries of Mali and Niger. Zidouemba explained that all three countries have similar problems: terrorism, migration, and social tension. To help journalists network, RIJ launched paxsahel.com, a cross-border project to promote peaceful conflict resolution, in 2015. Journalists from the Sahel are now able to share information, exchange experiences, write articles together, and post them online. The website is currently being expanded and updated. In the future, current information from the Sahel zone and on the situation of the press will be available alongside analyses by experts, tutorials, and documentation–all in conflict-sensitive language, of course.
"Reporting on conflicts is a tedious task," said Zidouemba. So far, RIJ's work has focused on supporting several community radio stations in the north of the country by training and professionalizing its permanent and freelance staff. However, with the immense upswing in the use of social media, the RIJ now faces a new task.
"The people of Burkina Faso want to understand situations. They are looking for information, not only from the major national media outlets, but also on social media," said Boureima Salouka, the local coordinator for DW Akademie. In the run-up to the presidential elections in 2020, Salouka has a big task ahead of him as he is coordinating a training series on fact-checking.
"Our community is made up of journalists and well-known bloggers. We want to systematically check information for its truthfulness and are developing a digital platform where we will publish verified articles and statements from public figures. Through this verification, we hope to improve the quality of election reporting," he said.
This is an enormous challenge that the journalists are taking upon themselves but it is a challenge that they are committed to. Hopefully Burkina Faso will be a more peaceful country because of their hard work.
Charlotte Noblet works as a journalist and trainer. Whenever she can, she tries to combine these two skillsets. She researches and writes articles herself but also passes on her knowledge to students at various universities and colleges, as well as in training courses. At DW Akademie she works mainly as a freelance media trainer in West Africa and the Maghreb.
Petra Aldenrath loves to write portraits and long-form articles. She is an experienced journalist who has worked for newspapers, magazines and radio and has been published in several books. For five years she was the ARD correspondent for Mongolia and China. She has also worked as a freelance reporter from Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Canada and Israel. She has been working at the DW Akademie since 2018. She is particularly interested in telling the stories behind the organization's diverse media development projects.
Profile: Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger
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