Burundi: Music censorship or artist protection?

11 January 2017

Since a political crisis hit Burundi in May 2015, tensions have been high between the powers that be and the opposition; the media and civil society have all been involved in this polarising battle; and it seems that the newest victims of this battle are local musicians who now need to pass a “quality test” for their art to be heard.

By John Banram, Freemuse correspondent – reporting from Burundi

It is no secret that during the protests against the third mandate of President Pierre Nkurunziza music was used to encourage youth to take to the streets. Several Burundian musicians were directly or indirectly harassed because their musical outlets reflected the anger and disappointment with the political powers. It was said that some songs instigated youngsters to commit acts of violence.

After the failed coup d’état and the ever increasing repression against all those who supported the campaign against the third mandate, musicians were also targeted. Several had to flee the country, leaving some of them in a desperate situation without any possibilities to return to Burundi. Some who remained within the country seemed to have taken the more opportunistic road and stopped singing critical songs against politicians or the political situation. Self-censorship is often mentioned.

In October 2016, the last independent radio station in the country, Isanganiro, was obliged to shut down one of their music programmes, Karadiridimba, for about one month. The reason? The High Press Council (Conseil National de la Communication) disagreed with the content of one song that was broadcast.

Musician association given new powers
Two months later, on 6 December, the same council inaugurated another mechanism to exert control over which songs can be played on Burundian radio stations.

Officially announced as a measure to defend the copyrights of artists, authorisation has been given to a private association of musicians, Amicale des Musiciens du Burundi (AMB) (Friends of the Music of Burundi), to decide upon the artistic quality of musical expressions.

In other words, this private association will be in charge of deciding what songs are of “good artistic quality” and, conversely, which ones are not. By applying this very vague artistic criteria, the AMB will be effectively able to censor songs from being broadcast on different radio stations.

There are doubts that the main reason to implement this new policy seems to have other prerogatives than only artistic ones. AMB president Bruno Simbavimbere already called upon the High Press Council in November 2016 to warn them that “some local radio stations are broadcasting songs that do not reflect the efforts of the government to search for peace”.

A new method for censorship
For some musicians this measure is seen as a new and effective way of implementing direct censorship. Issa Jamal, better known under his artistic name of Yoya, is openly against this measure.

“What do you want us to sing? We were born and have grown up in a war situation,” Jamal said.

Jamal’s opinion is one that seems to be shared with many other musicians who have fled the country and are living in exile. Some of them have even gone so far as to start calling this the beginning of a music police force.

Kidumu, one of the most famous Burundian singers stated that “if censorship is necessary, it needs to be done by a national committee that is independent and neutral”, reported Iwacu on 29 December 2016.

Legally speaking, “a private association does not have the power to protect copyrights of the author”, said National Copyright Office (OBDA) director Gordien Bucumi. “If any control is needed at the national level, it should come from a national commission.”

How will songs be selected?
Some musicians, contacted via Whatsapp, seem to be very worried about the selection process. Quite a lot of them are fearful that some, if not all, of their songs will be labelled as opposition music, meaning they will be banned from broadcasts and, in turn, will not allow them to enhance their careers.

On the other hand, they are also afraid that only those who are close to the ruling party, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), will be allowed to appear on the “good” list. Risks are high that these musicians will thus also be used to perform political propaganda.

Some Burundian bands that are close to the ruling party, however, seem to defend the new measure.

Vianey Nzigamasabo, a musician from the band Peace and Love, generally known as close to the party in power, said: “It is high time for us to work hard and to produce quality music”, reported Iwacu on 16 December 2016.

The same difference in opinion is echoed by radio broadcasters, the main disseminators of Burundian music. All those with close ties to the government applaud the new measure, while the few independent ones, including those in exile, are openly calling this a form of censorship.

Censorship or better protection of musicians, one thing seems to be clear: Burundian musicians are increasingly engaged in the political polarisation that is currently dividing the country.

For some musicians the moral lesson is clear: Burundian music is losing its cultural and artistic value if musicians are to pay lip service to politicians. And it seems that musicians are the next artists in Burundi to pay the price these days for freedom of expression.


» Iwacu – 16 December 2016
No more broadcasting of unauthorised songs

» Iwacu – 29 December 2016
Censorship: Burundian musicians unleash themselves

More from Freemuse

» 6 September 2016: Burundi: Musician received death threats ahead of trip home

» 10 March 2016: Burundi: Musician detained for insulting head of state

» 6 January 2016: Burundi: Musician shot by police

» 28 September 2015: Burundi: Musicians menaced, silenced and fleeing the country

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