Using the power of the media to send targeted messages to people in a position to end abuses

African Public Radio (APR) used its power as a media entity to influence individuals and groups who could help fix the situation in Burundi’s hospitals, where poor people were being held against their will because they could not pay their bills. Eventually, in partnership with local NGOs, APR successfully pressured the government to order the people’s release.

In war-stricken Burundi, many cannot afford needed medical care. Adding to the problem, a general system breakdown in the 1990s reduced the state’s capacity to support the health system. Facing a budget crisis and growing debt, hospitals began to detain people who could not pay their bills. Because the hospitals felt they were being wronged by those who would not pay, they did not see this as a human rights issue.

After gaining access to detainees and winning their trust, APR secretly interviewed them and broadcast their tes­timonies. The broadcasts included messages targeted to specific groups and individuals who had power to fix the situation. After the first broadcast, APR joined forces with national and international NGOs, hosting a café presse —an elaborate press conference — on health care with government officials and other influential people. The final discussion addressed the detentions themselves and put moral pressure on the government to respond.

In April 2002, the Council of Ministers forbade hospital detentions and ordered the hospitals to free all detainees. The government also created a commission to examine the larger issues of access to health care and reforms of national health policy.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

Journalists can use their position in society to raise awareness of human rights abuses and to influence those in power to make changes. Through the use of radio, journalists in Burundi were able to persuade key leaders to end human rights abuses occurring in hospitals.

A key element of this tactic was identifying the target of the broadcasts: What group or groups would have the power to change the situation in the hospitals and at the same time be receptive to the message? In this case it was government officials, who were morally bound to act after the stories became public. This tactic also dem­onstrates the power of stories. The victims’ stories, once in the hands of individuals with access to a podium, changed national policies.

The tactic could have backfired, however, as some had feared, if the hospitals had decided to deny future care to patients who had appeared on the radio program. It might also have resulted in embarrassment for those patients if there were any stigma surrounding their illnesses. To be successful, this tactic requires that journal­ists be engaged in and willing to work for the advancement of human rights issues.