Can ‘peace radio’ survive in peacetime?

As UN missions end, the future of viable independent stations remains uncertain
From Africa Renewal: 
page 16
Radio Okapi reporter interviewing Congolese youthsRadio Okapi reporter interviewing Congolese youths: The UN station in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has 20 million listeners, more than any other radio station in Francophone sub-Saharan Africa.
Fondation Hirondelle / Lâm Duc Hiên

In conflict zones, one radio station is worth five army battalions, a former chief of UN peacekeeping operations once said. Listeners and numerous expert studies confirm that "peace radios" — often established by UN peacekeeping missions — have been powerful weapons for peace. So far there have been seven UN stations in countries emerging from traumatic civil wars, from Sierra Leone to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). They have provided balanced and reliable information, offered a voice to minorities and contributed to a sense of national belonging.

Beyond helping to ease tensions and counteract malicious propaganda (see Broadcasting peace), such radio stations have been important training grounds for local journalists and technicians, who make up most of their staff. They have thus strengthened professional standards in countries where media outlets have often been the mouthpieces of particular political actors.

Yet when the time comes for the UN to leave, until recently that has meant simply "pulling the plug," Bill Orme, a media expert at the UN Development Programme (UNDP), says regretfully. But an abrupt departure can leave a media void, threatening efforts to restore peace.

Whether that exit strategy can be modified in the future depends to no small extent on developments in Sierra Leone. Established 10 years ago as the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) entered the war-ravaged West African country, Radio UNAMSIL soon became the country's most successful radio station. Then in 2005 the Security Council asked UNAMSIL, as it was winding down, to support the establishment of an independent public service broadcaster. Finally in March 2010 the former UN station's administration passed under the control of a Sierra Leonean board.

A broadcaster at Radio OkapiA broadcaster at Radio Okapi: After the UN leaves, can successor radio stations secure enough financing to keep operating?
Photograph: Fondation Hirondelle / Lâm Duc Hiên

According to Mr. Orme, although the success of Sierra Leone's experiment remains to be seen, it represents a better option than simply closing down as a UN mission withdraws. As he argues in a report, "This is one replicable model for UN radio transitions to local control, and merits attention at UN headquarters and in neighbouring Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire, where the peacekeeping missions and their radio services are due to wind down soon." He is doubtful, however, that the Sierra Leone example will attract enough attention among policymakers at UN headquarters in New York.

This is not surprising, remarks Susan Manuel, chief of the Peace and Security Section of the UN Department of Public Information. "UN radio stations are transitory by definition. They were not originally designed to last after the peace missions. But the successes they have had over the years caused this approach to be seen as flawed." Nevertheless, notes Mr. Orme, "When reviewing peacekeeping missions, not only is the focus mainly on the political and the financial aspects, but also those radio stations established by the UN represent a tiny portion of the mission's budget. They easily go unnoticed."

Models for transformation

There are different ways in which the UN may be able to leave behind a viable radio station after withdrawing. In Sierra Leone, with the transition to an independent public service station, the country's president has named a board that includes government officials as well as political opposition and civil society representatives. The aim is to maintain the station's editorial independence and ability to provide the public with balanced and trusted information.

This model — dubbed the "BBC model" by some media development practitioners — is costly. Even for a wealthy country such as the UK, the BBC's budget (around $5.7 bn annually) represents a lot of money, notes Jonathan Marks, a media researcher and consultant with extensive experience in radio in Africa. In countries emerging from war, like Sierra Leone, such a model may not be sustainable "unless you have a very good plan on how to finance it, as well as clear editorial guidelines."

Another model is currently being pursued in the crisis-prone Central African Republic. There the former local UN radio station (Radio MINURCA) is being transformed into a private independent broadcaster by Hirondelle, a Swiss foundation with experience in supporting media in conflict-afflicted countries, often with UN backing. Based in Bangui, Radio MINURCA was launched and run by the UN from 1998 to 2000, and then shut down when its equipment was packed and sent to Sierra Leone. But with support from various donors, Hirondelle soon brought the station back on the air under a new name, Radio Ndeke Luka.

From the outset the foundation planned for the station's transition into a private entity, Jean-Marie Etter, Hirondelle's president, explains to Africa Renewal. "Doing it properly takes time," he says. "As soon as we got there, we started preparing for this transfer. It is the right thing to do." The transfer is not yet completed, since donor financing remains necessary. But even if it ultimately works, Mr. Etter cautions against simply trying to copy this particular experience. "Each context is different. What could work in Sierra Leone or the Central African Republic might not in Congo or in Sudan."

Others propose yet a different option: maintaining the infrastructure and a portion of the editorial staff of a UN station with the goal of supporting local media development. Some point to the importance of the UN's Radio Okapi in the DRC, which delivers comprehensive and unmatched national news coverage and, with 20 million listeners, is the most popular radio station in Francophone sub-Saharan Africa. Radio Okapi could be turned into a national news agency to provide content for the rest of the media, suggests Lena Slachmuijlder, country director of Search for Common Ground, a US non-governmental group specializing in media development in crisis zones. Francis Rolt, an independent consultant on media development in Africa, believes such a transformation would at least mean that the "UN is pulling out gracefully."

As Burundi refugees return home after the end of the war, radio is one of the most important sources of information and communicationAs Burundi refugees return home after the end of the war, radio is one of the most important sources of information and communication.
Alamy Images / Ton Koene

Challenges ahead

Whatever the option, whether the successors to UN radio stations survive after peacekeepers leave will also depend on a country's political and economic evolution. With weakened political institutions, countries recovering from conflict need reform of their security sectors, the restoration of law and order, mechanisms for protecting human rights, and free and fair elections. The success of such efforts can have a major impact on whether post-war stations remain independent, balanced and trustworthy, or succumb to the risks of censorship and partisan manipulation. "The evolution of the media sector goes hand in hand with that of the whole political context," notes Mr. Etter of Hirondelle.

Most analysts also point to the potential economic hurdles. In stable countries with growing economies, media outlets can raise revenue from advertising and public contributions. But in post-war countries economies are often in tatters and government budgets are tight.

In Burundi and the DRC, for instance, the media could scarcely survive without external donor contributions, argues Marie-Soleil Frère, a researcher at Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium. "Collectively, external partners have in effect taken charge of most of the media business in the region," she adds. Professionals working at externally financed media outlets tend to be the only ones who are well paid. In the DRC, Ms. Frère notes, Radio Okapi's annual budget (estimated at $10–13 mn) is 26 times higher than that of the second biggest radio station. The average salary for journalists at Radio Okapi is 10 times higher than that for journalists at other Congolese stations.

Despite the transfer to local control in Sierra Leone, the former UN station still relies on donor support, including from the UN Peacebuilding Fund. Radio Ndeke Luka in the Central African Republic is equally dependent on donors, with more than 80 per cent of its annual budget funded by them.

No genuine transfer in control will be effective until such stations are able to generate enough revenue to survive on their own. "Radio stations are expensive to run. Until the economic situation improves, there is little chance for success without outside financial support," concludes Mr. Rolt. "In Congo, Sierra Leone or Sudan, radio just has to become a profitable business, like in Kenya or South Africa."

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