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Central Africa’s crisis is testing local, independent media

By Anne Bennett

“It’s not a just a humanitarian crisis but also an information crises. Central Africans are living in complete darkness as they have no access to information.”  Pascal Chirha, National Coordinator, Institut Panos Paris in the CAR[1]

A storm of violence is washing over two African neighbors –  South Sudan and Central African Republic. The crises are internal and unrelated to one another, and yet they share a common tragedy: in each of these countries a hard won peace is drowning in blood. For the populations navigating the violence and chaos of these conflicts, credible local news is being reported by a press corps struggling courageously to face down the terror. By doing so local journalists are saving lives today and preserving the hope for democracy when the killing stops.

Locally sustained media outlets have taken root across the continent following bitter conflicts. From Sierra Leone and Liberia to South Sudan and Central African Republic, local news programs have covered elections, exposed corruption, brought together former enemies and political opponents, measured public opinion on once-taboo topics, and helped diverse communities hold up a mirror to themselves. When political conditions are stable, such programming goes hand in hand with the formation of democratic institutions, public accountability, and the rule of law.

But when political tensions tip into spiraling violence, as they have in South Sudan and Central African Republic (CAR), these news organizations have emerged as a bastion for lifesaving information.

Often using radio, the continent’s most popular medium, local, independent news operations have been able to withstand threats and remain on the air. Broadcasting in local languages, they have been able to inform the public about the movement of armed militias, stifle rumors and propaganda, and provide a platform for democratic solutions. For many communities, they are the only reliable voice offering this information. When they are silenced, the local population navigates blindly, confronting unpredictable violence day by day.

The world has turned briefly to Central African Republic, where in early December fighting broke out in the capital Bangui between a Northern rebel alliance mainly composed of Muslims, known as Seleka, and self-defense militias with a Christian majority, known as Anti-Balaka (Anti-Machete). Their fighting has ignited a cycle of revenge killings. Inside the country, the population risks a complete news blackout. Most of the radio stations have been off the air for a year, papers normally published in the capital are absent. The country’s most popular and trusted station, Radio Ndeke Luka, which is locally managed media and present in Bangui, and in the provincial cities of Bambari and Bouar, has received numerous threats.

Radio Ndeke Luka has become a target precisely because it has earned public trust, reporting credibly on the advance of the rebel coalition Seleka since it first seized a provincial city a year ago. When Seleka rebels entered Bangui three months later, on March 24, 2013, they looted Radio Ndeke Luka. Days later the radio was back on the airwaves.

Radio Ndeke Luka is an example of a trend that has developed across the continent over the past decade, as African media play a greater role in telling the story of Africa. This new capacity is a watershed event for democracy in Africa. The journalism is becoming more professional and sound business practices, in some cases, have supported greater independence and less reliance on private or political patrons. Better reporting, training in data journalism and new technology is opening up the political dialogue with professional coverage of domestic politics. At Ndeke Luka, the quality of the programming is reflected in phenomenal listenership figures, with 8 out of 10 people in the capital, Bangui, naming the radio as their first choice for news.

Originally created by a UN peacekeeping mission in the late 1990s, Ndeke Luka was later turned over to Fondation Hirondelle, a Swiss NGO that supports independent media in crisis zones. Since 2000, Hirondelle and Ndeke Luka have worked intensively to train and mentor local staff and managers. The station has been locally managed since 2012, led by a veteran reporter, Sylvia Panika, who came to the radio as a journalist ten years ago. She has resisted demands from two successive regimes to use the station as a vehicle to spread propaganda rife with ethnic slurs.

This station is one of a growing number of independent local news operations in Africa delivering information as valuable to alleviating human suffering as shipments of aid or security from peacekeepers.

These media need and deserve international support so that citizens of conflict and post-conflict countries can exercise their right “to seek, receive, and impart information, through any media, and regardless of frontiers” as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Security Council could and should do more. They can make explicit the right of journalists to cover such conflicts freely. They can insist local journalists receive the protection of national and international authorities, including the UN peacekeeping mission itself. This is the best step the international community can take to support the critical role these media play day to day during the conflict, and as the basis for a democratic society once the guns are quiet.

Anne Bennett is Executive Director of Hirondelle USA. Prior to joining HUSA, Bennett managed public service media projects for Fondation Hirondelle in Sierra Leone, Sudan and South Sudan.



[1] International Media Support. Personal Communication. January 10, 2014