Burundi's independent media reels after after failed coup

Bujumbura (Burundi) (AFP) - "Dialogue is better than force," reads the sign outside Radio Isanganiro, a private broadcaster in Burundi. Supporters of President Pierre Nkurunziza, however, silenced it altogether in the midst of a failed coup attempt.

Accused of supporting an uprising against the president over his controversial bid to stand for a third consecutive term -- branded unconstitutional by activists and the opposition -- Burundi's media have taken the brunt of a ferocious crackdown.

The influential and independent Africa Public Radio (RPA), Radio-Tele Renaissance, Bonesha-FM and Isanganiro were all attacked and their equipment destroyed, damaged or stolen.

"It happened on Thursday at about 3:00 am," recounted Prosper Nzisabira, a journalist at Bonesha-FM. "The journalists doing the night shift called me to say they were being attacked."

Later the same day, "they came in and ordered the team to return home, they said you're against the third term, so you no longer have the right to work."

"The soldiers then shot up our equipment," he added.

Like Burundi's other independent stations, Bonesha-FM had on Wednesday carried the message by a top general announcing the start of the coup attempt against Nkurunziza, who was out of the country in Tanzania at the time.

RPA radio, which brands itself as "the voice of the voiceless" and was one of the small central African nation's most listened-to stations, was also hit by a rocket on Thursday and forced off the air.

The building is riddled with bullet holes, and its first floor also blackened with smoke. Radio-Tele Renaisssance is also burned out, while the website of Isanganiro radio explained it too has been vandalised.

"They shot the screens of the editing machines and the computers used for transmission, and ripped out the cables," it says.

With only state radio still on the air, Burundi's independent media has been left in ruins -- a major setback to the huge strides the sector has made since the end of the bitterly sectarian civil war in 2006.

"There is such a hatred behind these attacks, a willingness to break, to destroy freedom of speech and expression in Burundi," said Innocent Muhozi, director of Radio-Tele Renaissance and a media rights activist.

"It is very clear that Burundi now looks like it was at the time of the single party -- in 1992, when there was only national radio and television."

Another private station, Radio Rema, which is considered the voice of the ruling CNDD-FDD, was also ransacked by demonstrators and no longer broadcasts -- leaving only state radio and the Catholic Radio Maria still on air.

"We tried to give balanced news. We kept people informed of what was happening," said Nzisabira. "Now it is as if the people were locked up in a coffin."