14 citizens' voice

Organisation

RNW Media

Location

Burundi

Recommendations

01 02 03 04

Innovation Category

Strategy

Creating alternative digital youth-led spaces.

Summary

This project provides the structure and creative framework, tools and tactics to engage young people at scale with complex and sensitive content, and builds inclusive and plural dialogues and positive discourse online and offline.


Main Features of the Populist Context

After emerging from civil war, Burundi faced further political crisis in 2015 with the third term re-election of political “strong man” President Pierre Nkurunziza and his party CNDD-FDD, and a violent failed coup attempt. Subsequent political instability, economic slowdown and withdrawal from international engagement have followed. There have been persistent human rights violations, lack of space for pluralistic and political dialogue and deteriorating trust in the government. The two core elements of populism are present:

anti-elitism: The authoritarian populist ideology of the ruling CNDD-FDD party promotes the concept of “one voice, one line”. There are either Abagumyabanga, those who know how to “keep secrets” or the straight line, or Abamenabanga, the traitors who have lost this. The party relies on the support of Burundians living outside the cities and capital, Bujumbura, so its dominant discourse relies on the dichotomy between the “real” Burundians, the rural masses who understand “true” cultural values and are attached to the land, and the “false” small urban elite who are corrupt, support the West and do not represent the country at all. This distinction delegitimises dissent from urban areas, including the political opposition, which can rarely go to the interior of the country thanks to the numerous prohibitions on public assembly and political rallies.

The political opposition has also at times deployed divisive populist discourse with the goal of collectively rallying opponents against President Pierre Nkurunziza and the CNDD-FDD, and to attract the attention and sympathy of the international community. Ruling members of the elite in power have been called Abanyeshamba, the “savages” preparing a genocide, mostly after the failed 2015 coup attempt, by opposition or activists in exile who were analysing the crisis through an ethnic, rather than political, lens. Radicalisation of some opponents has led to sporadic, sometimes deadly, attacks by armed groups on the security forces.

anti-pluralism: Sidelining urban areas justifies the CNDD-FDD party’s policies and attempts to maintain its popular support, which since 2010 has declined because of authoritarian rule, economic burdens and strict repression of youth and perceived opponents of the regime. In this environment, the President is the only true representative of “the people”, and all other actors and ways of thinking are dismissed. The binary thinking promoted by this populist rhetoric has impeded young Burundians from thinking critically in a society that already believes they are not entitled to have their own or alternative ideas and opinions.

Additional features of populism that are present in Burundi’s context are:

anti-debate: Any political opposition is considered as a betrayal. Opponents are referred to as mujeri, or “wild dogs to eliminate”.

rejects intermediaries: In October 2018, the government placed a three-month suspension on almost all international organisations as part of a wider crackdown, which is seen as an unnecessary intermediary between “the people” and their “true representative”, the president. To demonstrate his paternalistic attachment to the “real” rural Burundians, the president directly distributes food parcels and bags of rice every week. He cultivates the image of a humble man, close to his people and rural Burundian values, who is persecuted by an internationally-supported urban national elite that wishes to secure his departure.


Role of Digital Media

Burundi exemplifies the importance of new media when access to pluralistic information and dialogue is limited or suppressed due to lack of financial resources or enforced censorship of the traditional media, such as radio, by authoritative regimes. The majority of private radio stations were shut down in 2015, and several independent media outlets were replaced by propaganda set-ups.

New and digital media have had a slow start, but internet penetration has tripled since 2012 (although still low at 5.3% in December 2018) and mobile phone usage is high (56.3%). From December 2016 to July 2018, Benevolencija Burundi found that Facebook usage grew from 11.3% to 19.7%, and WhatsApp from 7.5% to 18.8%. The 2015 coup revealed popular use of social media on mobile phones to be often the only information and communication channel between citizens and journalists in and outside the country. Social networks are used by journalists as both reporting tools and news outlets, often replacing gagged radio stations. At the same time, the Burundian leadership has also used Twitter to try and characterise its regime as “democratic”.


Main Features of the Innovation

Since 2015, Citizens’ Voice has engaged young people in the Middle East and North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and China on issues of civic participation and inclusive governance, creating digital communities to amplify youth voices in restrictive settings where freedom of expression is limited. RNW Media acts as a centre of expertise, helping to apply user-centred and data-driven approaches to building digital communities for social change.

One excellent case study supported by Citizens’ Voice is Yaga Burundi, the country’s largest blogging community working on active citizenship, freedom of the press and democracy. Yaga brings together Burundi’s best bloggers and influential change-makers from across the political and social spectrum.

The key features of this innovation are:

Since 2015, the platform has grown to be an alternative civic space in a challenging media environment, enabling young Burundians to express socio-political opinions. It deals with a wide range of sensitive topics, and creates opportunities for politicians and decision- makers to actively participate in Yaga events and engage in dialogue with young people on issues that matter to them.

Yaga Burundi has gained a reputation as a trustworthy non-partisan platform that empowers young people to think critically, express their views freely and discuss their country’s issues peacefully with their peers — both online and offline. Yaga also ensures that youth voices in rural areas and places with limited or no access to online spaces are heard, spanning the false divides perpetuated in the populist rhetoric. The engagement rates of young women on Yaga’s Facebook page is also higher than average for the platform in Burundi.

Through its digital channels, the Yaga platform currently engages more than one-fourth of Burundians with online access on themes spanning freedom of expression, democracy, youth entrepreneurship and gender equality.It has the largest Facebook Community Page and third largest Twitter audience in the country (2018).

Yaga’s platforms are carefully moderated. While Yaga is dedicated to exploring multiple viewpoints, the platform’s community moderators encourage young Burundians to engage in dialogue and move away from populist rhetoric, polarisation and conflict. As young people recognise that there are multiple viewpoints, they increasingly accept and respect diversity while also challenge restrictive norms and prejudices.

Yaga uses fresh and innovative media formats to engage young people and enables them to access relevant and pluralistic views and information. It is the first form of media in Burundi to use motion design videos to address the communal stereotypes and prejudices. Yaga’s weekly “infotainment” format — Twittoscopie — reflects the Burundian Twitter landscape, also known as abatwip, using humour and social or historical references to sum up the fiercest debates and controversies between key Twitter influencers and their followers.

Yaga has also initiated open offline debates named Yaga Nawe around issues that matter to young people, such as social cohesion, youth entrepreneurship and inclusive governance. This has triggered dialogue among Burundian youth and both formal and informal decision- makers. The debates have been an effective way of breaking through (self-) censorship and have provided a civic space where young people dare to express themselves and call for accountability.

Yaga’s campaigns have engaged decision- makers and resulted in political action. In 2018, Yaga’s most successful campaign tackled the use of the heroin-derived drug “Boost”, one of Burundi’s most taboo but widely prevalent social issues affecting young people, with public authorities. Since the campaign, the Ministry of Public Security has made the fight against Boost a national priority.


Key Takeaways

  1. Establishing itself as a non-partisan platform has been essential to Yaga’s goals of representing the plurality of Burundian youth voices and influencing decision makers to include young people in policy and practice. Yaga has been able to criticise the government while also working with young people to foster critical thinking around issues affecting them, and facilitate constructive dialogue with both their peers and decision-makers.

  2. Using alternative animated and “infotainment” media formats that resonate with young people, and through debates, blogs and investigative dossiers, Yaga shows the nuances and complexities of various issues, helping young people to accept plurality, contradiction and diversity of views. Yaga’s content was viewed over 1.2 million times in 2018.

  3. Careful and strategic moderation on platforms makes alternate civic spaces safe and inclusive in an otherwise repressed and polarised civil society. When applied as part of a holistic engagement strategy, it allows marginalised groups to feel included in conversations, encourages users to come back regularly and creates a safe space where young people can both participate and benefit.


Innovation Categorisation

We have categorised this as an established, transformational innovation, as it has reached new youth audiences at scale, created new connections to politicians and decision-makers and used new digital tools and moderation tactics to increase depth of engagement and inclusion.


Innovating Organisation

RNW Media is an international civil society organisations and centre of expertise that builds user-owned digital communities for access to information and active social change for and by young people in restrictive settings, where they can safely engage on sensitive and often taboo subjects: from pleasurable sex to civic participation.


Innovation Report     2019

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