The citizens’ radio

by Sylvie Panika

Poorest nation, richest nation (Issue III+IV/2018)

“Why doesn’t your radio station broadcast any religious news?” the man asks reproachfully over the phone. “Because, according to our founding statutes, we are not a religious radio station,” I answer calmly. As the editor-in-chief of Radio Ndeke Luka, I’m used to critical questions like this – after all, we are one of the few news-focussed radio stations in the Central African Republic.

If you want to run a radio station here, you need to have both a thick skin and the ability to listen to people. For one of our shows, For the youth, by the youth, we regularly send one of our younger editors out onto the street  to talk to his age group about their concerns. He asks local students, younger shoppers and others of his age about the problems in their neighbourhoods. That’s how we know when the rubbish bins are overflowing somewhere, or when junk is piling up in some corner of the street or when the roads are potholed. And then a few days after we broadcast our report, the staff from the municipalities responsible turn up to take care of the problem. Of course, they would never say they have come there simply because they heard about it on the radio. But we know better. Without a little media attention nothing would have been done.

A lot of officials and politicians look at us sceptically. They know that we are partially funded by a Swiss foundation, Hirondelle, that supports trustworthy journalism. This means they are also well aware that they cannot buy our reporting.  For people who want to control the media, we are a  thorn in their side.

And because we are closer to the local people here, and we work for them with our journalism, the local people are also supportive of us. Neighbours, orphans and even soldiers – they all come by our offices and tell us what’s new in the city. They keep us informed. They tell us where there’s been an accident, where there’s been violence and what new things are happening in the different neighbourhoods. Sometimes we hear from students who tell us that their teacher hit them during lessons or young women who say they have been abused. In cases like this we try to educate our listeners. The next day we might point out the work done by women’s rights organisations or we may explain why it is not right to hit children and how education can work better without violence.

In a country where around two-thirds of the adult population cannot read very well, a radio station has a lot of responsibility. In 2013, we experienced that first hand. Our offices were stormed by the Seleka rebels, who had just attempted a coup. They laid their weapons on our desks – there was still shooting going on outside – and dragged the lifeless bodies of their fallen comrades through our doors, as if they wanted to provide us evidence of what was happening. Then we had to interview their leader. They wanted us to spread their message. That was probably the most dangerous situation the we, as an editorial team, have had to deal with so far. 

Today it is no less dangerous to report accurately in the Central African Republic. There are certain regions of the country we can only occasionally report from – if we sent our colleagues there we would be risking their lives. Instead we use reliable informants in the different provinces. They tell us what’s happening there and where there is fighting. We try and ensure the accuracy of their reports by asking as many different sources as possible to verify the eye witness reports.

This is particularly important because false or fake news can have terrible consequences in the Central African Republic. Once a false report becomes a rumour and is passed on by word-of-mouth, it’s almost impossible to rectify. That has led to physical clashes in the past.

Even though there is war here, people still don’t want to listen to serious shows. It’s the opposite actually: They’re longing for lighter stuff.  At the moment one of our shows, “Now it’s your turn!”, gets the best audience numbers. Every day between 11:00 and 13:00 listeners call the station directly. Some want to surprise relatives with some news , others sing birthday greetings to friends – and every now and then, we also produce a quiz show where listeners can win prizes.

Transcribed by Stephanie von Hayek

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