Eloge Willy Kaneza is an intrepid radio reporter from Burundi who, despite the increased persecution and violence against journalists following last year’s failed coup, continues to report on his country for Burundians and the outside world.
“Not only does Eloge Kaneza embody the journalistic values the Peter Mackler Award seeks to honor, he and his colleagues have also found creative ways to push back on repression using online technologies,” said PMA Project Director Camille Mackler. “He is a role model.”
In May 2015, Burundi president Pierre Nkurunziza closed down all independent radio stations in a country where the airwaves offer the main conduit of reliable information. He blamed them for enabling the coup plotters. More than a hundred reporters fled the country, most of them to neighboring Rwanda, fearing arrest or worse. Those who stayed behind have organized a collective to continue reporting the news from their troubled nation on social media.
“When it comes to global press freedom, Burundi ranks toward the bottom and shows no signs of improvement – on the contrary,” said Louise Roug, member of the PMA advisory board.
Eloge Kaneza, who stayed home in Bujumbura, became the only public face and the essential local link for the online news network eloquently baptized SOS Media Burundi. Set up within 48 hours of the failed coup, the network publishes local, verified information via Facebook and Twitter as well as on the music sharing site SoundCloud. Reporters remain anonymous, work in isolation, and cope with the country’s poor communications infrastructure by moving from one Wi-Fi hotspot to another. Editorial decisions are discussed via the encrypted mobile application WhatsApp.
Esdras Ndikumana, correspondent for Agence France-Presse and Radio France Internationale, who was forced into exile after being attacked by intelligence agents, said recently that without SOS Media Burundi, he wouldn’t be able to provide his readers and listeners with any information from the country.
Following strict editorial policies, SOS Media interviews and reports the views of all parties, including government press conferences, and refrains from any editorializing. Foreign editors say that this strict adherence to impartiality is why Eloge has won the respect of all sides. “He seems to have won the confidence of both sides, the government and the opposition. He is able to get information from difficult parties such as the security forces. People trust him,” said a VOA editor.
Equipped with smartphones, its journalists report what they see in their neighborhoods, covering violence against civilians, arbitrary arrests and shelling. The reports, including text and photos, are discussed and vetted by editors in Bujumbura, as well as one in Europe, before publication.
Eloge, 34, was working for Bujumbura FM radio Bonesha and Kigali, Rwanda, KF radio when his station was shut down. Married and with a baby in the way, he took stringing jobs with the Associated Press and the Voice of America to make ends meet.
“His work with the collective is notable for its creativity in circumventing the restrictions that otherwise curtail accurate reporting in the country. Using the power of smartphones and social media, reporters hold officials accountable and file dispatches from parts of the country that would otherwise remain invisible to the outside world. As one of the named reporters of this otherwise anonymous collective, he is a role model whose courage deserves recognition,” said Roug.
Eloge studied audiovisual communications in Bujumbura’s Université Lumière.
He also attended a Reporters Without Borders workshop on cybersecurity in Bujumbura, along with other SOS Media reporters, to learn how to protect communications online.
He speaks English, French and Swahili.
Burundi is ranked 156 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders 2016 World Press Freedom Index, falling 11 places since the 2015 index.
“What this journalist is doing, without the support of the most basic editorial structure that most journalists take for granted, is so raw, exposed, focused and pure that it cannot be ignored. I am hugely impressed,” said Chris Boian, member of the PMA advisory board.
“His courage in using his byline speaks to his willingness and desire to inspire colleagues in the face of possible arrest and other forms of retaliation,” added John Lennon, PMA advisory board member.