Public information: Getting the message out

 

“I am worried you are too popular and the station will collapse because of its popularity. Everywhere I go I hear Miraya…” (Comment from a listener of the United Nations Radio Miraya in Juba, southern Sudan)

 

Launched in June, 2006, Radio Miraya (Arabic for mirror) quickly grew popular and effective in explaining the peace process and the UN’s role in the Sudan.

 

The fifth UN radio station to be operating on behalf of current UN peace operations in 2006, Miraya’s has been a fraught birth.

 

Before a peace operation is deployed, DPKO and DPI usually conduct assessment missions to determine the media landscape and the best means of reaching the local population to help them understand and support the peace process and the UN’s mandate and presence.

Imitation of SRSG William Lacy Swing by Congolese artist Mira Mikaza, Kinshasa, DRC, 12 December 2006. (MONUC Photo by Myriam Asmani)

 

UN radio stations are considered a farreaching and cost-effective option if the communications infrastructure has collapsed in a post-conflict situation, or if the airwaves are dominated by a single or very few voices. The intent is not to displace indigenous media, but to help build local capacity.Most producers and reporters are local talent.

 

In the Sudan, the UN believed that only radio could reach the far-flung populations of the world’s tenth largest country. However, UNMIS has yet to receive authorization from the Government in Khartoum to broadcast and it operates in South Sudan with the OK of the Government of Southern Sudan. Miraya has also been preparing weekly programmes for broadcast in Darfur on local stations.

 

Miraya offers a chance for public dialogue on the peace process and other local issues. It operates 24/7, has expanded to four other locations outside Juba and features an outstanding collection of regional music in addition to reliable news broadcasts.

 

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, another peacekeeping station, Radio Okapi, (named after an animal resembling a both a zebra and giraffe) has become an institution: it is ranked the most popular station in the DRC with close to 50 million listeners.

 

Linking all parts of a huge country not otherwise sewn together by roads, river, airwaves or political unity, and broadcasting in five languages, Okapi has literally enabled the people of the DRC to know about each other, each other’s music and the political process that led to nation-wide elections this year. Broadcasting on FM and short-wave via 54 transmitters, Okapi’s coverage before elections reached 80 per cent of the country. Electoral observers cited its contributions to a fair electoral process.

 

All heads of departments are Congolese, and the station is training its journalists with the hope that they can take over the station with the end of the peacekeeping mission.

 

A billboard from UNOCI’s peace campaign in Côte d’Ivoire entitled “La Route de la Paix”, courtesy of Outhouse Communications.

 

Both Miraya and Okapi are joint ventures between the United Nations and a Swiss NGO, Fondation Hirondelle. Donations (from the Dutch, Swiss,UK and US Governments, for example) are also crucial.

 

In Côte d’Ivoire, Radio ONUCI broadcasts over a frequency allocated by the state broadcaster Radio-TV Ivoirienne (RTI), covering at least 50 per cent of the population, with 90 per cent of those within range listening to its news broadcasts. While RTI has changed management twice during the political upheavals between the camps of the President, the Prime Minister and opposition forces in the north, ONUCI-FM has been able to broadcast without interference. The UN hopes that listeners notice the difference between straight talk and information and the highly political and sometimes hate-filled language in other media.

 

The Fondation Hirondelle is also helping the transition of a former peacekeeping station,Radio UNAMSIL (now “UN Radio” in Sierra Leone) to become a public access broadcaster. Credited in a 2005 opinion survey by 94 percent of the respondents as a good source of information, the station is now faced with how to maintain its profile and capacity with fewer resources.

 

The same survey group from City College of New York/Yale University found that 95 per cent of the Liberian population surveyed gave UNMIL Radio equally high marks. The UN radio station in Liberia is the only station to cover most of the country and has set standards that many local stations are keen to emulate.

 

With its varied mix of styles, formats and language, (including talk-shows and entertainment 24/7) the station reaches several audiences, with programming that ranges from serious discussion on political issues and live coverage of key events to light entertainment, spiced with messaging on current affairs and the development, political and social agenda. Interactive discussions go on not only across Liberia, but with refugees in Ghana, Sierra Leone,Guinea, and Nigeria.

 

How to keep these stations alive, maintain as credible a voice as possible, manage the assets, pay staff and contribute to the overall media scene in the country are questions for UN peace operations as missions draw to a close.Timorese managers, for example, did not have the resources or capacity to continue the radio they inherited from UN peacekeepers two years ago, and its work suffered.

 

In missions where local media are active and diverse, UN public information components produce radio and TV programming to be aired by local broadcasters. In Burundi, the peacekeeping mission produced daily radio programming and scores of TV features for local broadcasters during its two-year presence that ended on 31 December. The mission also trained young people in journalism, and some of its own public information staff went on to start production companies.

 

From Kosovo, UNMIK TV produces a programme for Serb displaced persons broadcast over Serbia’s commercial “TV Pink.”The show,“Danas y Sutra”(“Today and Tomorrow”) carries news about the Serb minority in Kosovo targeting some 250,000 Kosovo Serb IDPs elsewhere in Serbia. “Danas y Sutra’s” audience of nearly one million indicates that far more people than the target audience find the programming compelling.

 

Broadcast media grew rapidly in 2006, particularly as technology enabled dissemination of video by satellite from the field to UN headquarters and from there to hundreds of broadcasters via the Department of Public Information’s UNIFEED system. Most UN field missions now have their own websites. But each mission is different and in more low-tech regions, public information staff seek out other means of communication.

 

In Liberia, UNMIL has joined with comedian and national icon George Tamba, alias Georgio Butini, to communicate on the peace process in the language of the grassroots.As his jokes leave his audiences in stitches, he embeds messages on issues such as sexual exploitation and abuse, gender-based violence, disarmament, HIV/AIDS, human rights and reconciliation. Postconflict Liberia has also relied on Butini to mobilize support for the new political administration especially in the countryside, with a household name and an appeal that cut across class, gender and tribe.

 

In Côte d’Ivoire, ONUCI’s public information office capitalized on the Ivorian team’s participation in the 2006 World Cup – “les Eléphants” had players from both sides of the north-south conflict – to create a campaign for peace called “La Route de la Paix,” linking sports, unity, peace and progress in images and messages replicated from billboards to sandals and set to music by reggae artist Alpha Blondy.

 

Unsolicited works on peace by musicians and artists can be the ultimate form of communication, as well as a good sign of local acceptance.

 

Congolese rap artist Mira Mikaza had a big hit in Kinshasa recently with his music video “Koko Souing,” which he performs in the persona ofWilliam Lacy Swing, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the DRC.According to the chorus, “quand Koko Souing entre en jeu, personne ne va tirer”, or “when Grandpa Swing gets involved,nobody's gonna shoot...”

 

 

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Prepared by the Peace and Security Section, United Nations Department of Public Information.

© United Nations 2007