Radio As A Force For Peace

Jocelyne Sambira
… was born in Paris, France. She holds a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Burundi. Since 1995 she has been deeply invoveld in producing radio shows from conflict areas, mainly in Africa. Her mission is peace building and driving social change for the better.






In 1998, at the height of the civil war in Burundi, one of the rebel groups operating in the suburbs overlooking the capital, Bujumbura, had just issued threats to the local population. The rumor was that the rebel group was going to behead 100 people in the area suspected of being government informants. The locals did not take the threat lightly. There had been several isolated cases where the heads of people were left on small pathways to discourage the locals from talking to the government army. A group of men and women took their courage in both hands and went to one of the independent radios with this story. The station manager called the head of the rebel movement and recorded a live interview with him. The rebel chief was livid. He rigorously denied any plot to murder people. This report was broadcast throughout the week. That night and the rest of the week, the residents of that area slept soundly. In fact, the beheading stopped completely.

That alone says more than a thousand words.


What the ordinary citizen in Burundi had come to understand was that information is power.
In a country where people at the grassroots had little or no power of decision, their voice carried far through radio. In one radio broadcast, 6 million people could be reached, the estimated population of the country at the time.

In many countries ravaged by war and violent conflict, radio is sometimes the only way of getting information. In most of these regions, there is little or no infra- structure and when people are on the run, it is sometimes the only link to the world they have left behind.
Repressive governments, the masterminds of the geno- cide, and other war criminals in the past have understood the power of radio. They use it as a tool to control and influence the masses, sometimes even as a weapon of mass murder as in Rwanda. In the lead up to the genocide in Rwanda, there were very divisive and polarizing messages broadcast by the former “hate radio”, Radio Milles Collines. During the genocide it egged on its supporters, encouraging them to kill the people from the minority, the “Tutsis’ who they labeled as cockroaches and assailants. It fuelled a lot of the ethnic tensions and violence, pitting one ethnic group against another. Three of the station managers were tried and convicted with genocide, incitement to genocide, and crimes against humanity at the International Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha.
Burundi has the same ethnic makeup as Rwanda, and almost the same ethnic issues, which is why “hate messages” were also insidiously creeping up in the local media.

I had just graduated from the University of Burundi and the country was at war. It was a particularly traumatic time for me. I had survived the genocide in Rwanda after fleeing to a displaced persons camp guarded by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, RPF. I was happy to be alive but I was also struggling with the trauma of what I had been through as well as grief over the number of loved ones lost. I walked away from that tragedy feeling that I needed to do something with my life, to fight for peace so that genocide would never ever happen again in our region. So it was with that mindset that I applied for a job with Studio Ijambo, an innovative media project that was using radio to promote peace and reconcile the two warring ethnic groups in Burundi. Together with a team of talented local journalists, we strove to uphold the highest professional standards of journalism in a very difficult moment of our history. People in Burundi came to trust independent radio as a source of information but also as a vehicle to broadcast sensitive information. It took time to gain that trust. In the beginning people were afraid of talking into the microphone. There was such an atmosphere of fear and profound mistrust, people ran away whenever they saw a journalist. It was after covering several stories about the war, the massacres, and other tragic events during that time that people began to open up.
When I went out into the field and said my name, people’s faces would break into a smile and I would always hear a word of encouragement. At the radio, we always worked as a team, regardless of our ethnicity, and worked hard with the fact-checking and double checking our sources to report without any bias. We always made sure to go in mixed teams: both Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups represented. It was a little scary at times because when you went into an area where people were hostile towards your ethnic group, you had to rely totally on your colleague who was of the other ethnic group to keep you safe. That forged a strong bond amongst us. Furthermore, you had to sometimes face the hostility of listeners who did not like the fact that we were denouncing sometimes violent acts committed by people of our own ethnic group. It was not rare to be singled out in public or called “traitor” by extremist groups or individuals.

The government too was keeping tabs on us. I was filing stories on the war for Associated Press in addition to my work at the radio. I often got “reprimanded” or “warned” on the phone by army officials for stories I wrote about the fighting. I was even threatened once with incarceration if I did not divulge my sources. I was called into the Justice Minister’s Office for an AP story where I quoted one spokesman for a rebel group. The fighting had intensified and was now taking place not far from the capital. The government had warned the local stations about broadcasting interviews with the rebels using the argument that the country was at war and that it was a national security issue. As journalists, our position was that the same rebels were in secret talks with government, so we had an obligation to our listeners to get both views.

When I arrived at the Minister’s office, I was asked to hand over the rebel chief’s cell phone number or go to jail. I chose to go to jail. Luckily for me, it was just a bluff. The Minister already had the number, but he wanted to intimidate me and maybe discourage me from any further reporting. It did not stop me, but made me even more determined to do my job. I can state for a fact that non-stop coverage by Burundi journalists during the civil and peace process kept the warring parties accountable and forced them to work towards peace.

Radio in Burundi became the fourth estate.
It kept the government in check and demanded accountability from the local authorities. Throughout the war, radio covered both the Hutu and Tutsi camps and kept the local populations abreast of events. Radio gave the people a platform for discussion. It often played mediator by organizing debates between both rival ethnic groups. Radio became the voice of the voiceless. It taught people tolerance and acceptance. By covering atrocities committed by both sides, it forced people to accept and acknowledge the truth. It also gave an unbiased account of Burundi’s recent history.
Radio prevented massacres and killings of innocent civilians where it could by airing the information beforehand, discouraging the armed groups from carrying out their deadly plans. It helped curb violence between different ethnic groups by trying to get balanced reports on events, giving a voice to the victims and confronting the authorities and rebel groups to explain their actions. The politicians and armed groups could no longer pit people against one another by using propaganda and disinformation. The people were able to judge for themselves because they were informed. Ignorance and lack of balanced and true information has been the root of all evil in Burundi. Muzzling the press, harassing and arbitrarily arresting journalists caused such uproar that the authorities had to bow down to public pressure.
One time, the government had closed down one of the popular private radio stations because it had been critical towards the President. People came from everywhere and demonstrated in front of the radio station. When the police dispersed them, they went to one of the President’s houses that was under construction, and staged a sit-in. They threatened to bring the house down, if the radio did not go back on air. A few hours later, the President lifted the ban on the radio station. That was a sign from the people to the government that they would never again accept being silenced.
The current UN envoy in Burundi, Charles Petrie, recently said in an interview that “credit needs to be given to the [Burundi] press” in defusing the tensions and lifting the taboos in society.

Another way our radio project tried to break stereotypes and discuss sensitive issues like ethnicity, was through drama. We produced a series called, “Our neighbors, ourselves” and were able to use it as a platform to debate social issues. Things that people were afraid to say on air, they could act out in a sketch. It also allowed people to debate the issues freely since they were discussing “fictional” characters and situations. The series was broadcast for 4 years with huge success throughout the country.
When I moved to work with a UN humanitarian news agency, IRIN, I produced another soap opera or radio drama series with a group of Burundian refugees living in the camps in Tanzania. This radio soap opera written for and enacted by Burundian refugees demonstrated once again the power of radio. The project began in May 2003 covering various aspects of refugee life, the peace process and the return home. The Burundi refugee camps in Tanzania had existed for over thirty years. During that period, the previous regimes did everything they could to suppress all means of communication. Very little mention was made of the 500,000 people living in camps, and when mentioned it was usually to portray them as enemies of the state, murderers and assassins. This radio soap opera gave a voice to the Burundi refugee as well as a say on what was happening in the country. For the first time, their voices were heard across the border. And we were sending news reports about the camps and the repatriation process that was ongoing.
People in Burundi were curious and interested in this cross-border information exchange. We were able to put a human face to the “Burundian refugee on the other side of the border”. People back home realized that they shared the same everyday issues and aspirations with the refugees. Many were even surprised to hear that refugees still speak the same language and were still attached to their country. Once the dialogue opened up, people were able to set aside their differences and agree on certain issues. By experience, my team and I knew that violence erupts out of fear, and you can only fear the unknown. By getting the two populations better acquainted, the project helped defuse past tensions. The return from exile was no longer viewed as a threat for either population – and that is something only initiatives dealing with the grassroots can achieve.

I had the chance to experience the magic of radio once again, while training Sudanese journalists at the UN Radio in Juba, South Sudan. Sudan was very different from Burundi in the sense that most of the local journalists had already picked sides. It is very hard to find objectivity or people who want to be “neutral”. Sudan had many issues ranging from racial, to religious and linguistic divisions. People clearly felt that they were fundamentally different and belonged to two different worlds. The North of Sudan is mainly Arab and Muslim while the South is mainly Christian and Black. When I arrived, the language people used in private when talking about their fellow countrymen from the North or South left me in no doubt. The radio station also employed former soldiers to work with them. So the challenges were: how do you make journalists out of former combatants? How do you bring people who are still politically active and under their political party or tribal/social/religious influence to think objectively? How do you build peace in a war situation?
Another daunting task was to build a solid and united team of journalists – making the radio one. We had two newsrooms: one in Khartoum, the capital of North Sudan, and one in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. It often felt like we are two separate radios without a common vision or goal. There was a lot of rivalry – which in normal circumstances would be healthy competition – that weakened the radio. I felt that if we could bring the two newsrooms to work together, and build trust, it could be a test case for the rest of the country. Gradually, through pep talks, a lot of on the job training focusing on ethical reporting – looking at the issues and not the actors – the quality of the work improved. And as the reporting improved, the two teams slowly began to appreciate each other professionally and started treating each other as equals.
I saw these journalists gradually change and rise above the conflict and strive to be professional, non partisan and independent journalists driven by their passion to obtain the truth. I left before I could see the two newsrooms merge, listening to the radio, you would not guess that the teams were operating from two separate regions.

I learned a lot as a journalist working in Burundi during the war and in post conflict countries like Sudan. I learned to be accurate and remain objective and impartial in my reports. I sometimes made people unhappy with my dogged pursuit of the truth. One soldier in Burundi had even cruelly dubbed me the “crow” because he said everywhere a dead body showed up, I was always on the scene like the bird. But I learned to deal with difficult and dangerous people, like the soldier, and I also learned when to push and when to tread carefully when I was collecting information. Over time, I also developed a keen sense of danger, but I learned the hard way. I remember going out to report on a newly built camp for people displaced by the fighting in Burundi. On our way, we saw people moving fast in the opposite direction. We kept driving and got caught in the cross-fire between rebels and the army. Luckily we managed to get out safely but I always remembered from then on to be more aware of my surroundings and look out for possible signs.
I also gained a profound passion for justice and the truth. I come from a very troubled and conflict prone region in Africa where information gives a person great power. It can either get you killed or save your life. Those who are privy to certain types of information wield it like a weapon against the weak. This secretive culture has been the reason behind our blood-filled past.
I understood, when covering the war and then the peace process, that sharing such crucial information helped the ordinary citizens make their own individual choices based on evidence and not hearsay. It also acted as a deterrent for people who in the past used false pretexts to push people to violence. Radio is a very powerful tool for African citizens who want to build strong, democratic societies.

New York is just another leg of my journey. If I am here today, it is because of the power radio has had in my life. And I am not alone. There are many more people like myself whose lives have been transformed positively. To support and strengthen radio is to support people whose voices are being silenced by repressive governments and bring them a step closer to achieving peace in our lifetime.



15 Comments

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Jonathan Marks
Jan 14, 2011 21:50

what a powerful story about the way radio can help us find a path for better understanding. I hope there is some way we can collect these testimonies and share them widely. It is also important that those who fund radio realise how more people are needed in independent journalism to maintain balance. There needs to be enough money in the industry to allow people to build careers. And that is just not understood by Western NGO’s.

Thomas Witherspoon
Jan 15, 2011 16:15

Ms. Sambira–Your article is most inspiring. I run an organization called, “Ears To Our World”–we give self-powered world band radios to teachers and schools throughout Africa. As you can imagine, your story very much supports our mission. We will be sending radios to three schools in Bor county, Southern Sudan in February. This is done through partnership with Project Education Sudan. This will be our second distribution to this area as we sent radios last year as well. The comments back from teachers, and the community have been most positive.

I would love to speak with you some time. Thank you for the inspiration.

Best,
Thomas

Ed Harris
Jan 15, 2011 17:44

Hello Jocelyne, Thank you for your inspirational story. I am a university professor and collaborate with Thomas (above) in developing content for podcasts that can be accessed by those in remote areas of the world. You can hear some of them in iTunes under the “Educational Access and Resource Network”. I concur with you, Thomas and Jonathon that radio is a dynamic medium that can be used to promote equity and “be a voice of the voiceless.“ In our complex, high-tech age, we sometimes forget that there is profundity in simplicity. We need to continue to spread the word. Thank you!! Ed

Jocelyne Sambira
Jan 19, 2011 15:47

Thank you all for your positive feedback.

I am happy to hear that there are people who share my passion for radio and helping people. I would definitely like to get in touch with most of you and will be scouring the web for your projects.

Ed- I also believe that radio can benefit immensly from this new high-tech age in terms of using new technology for distribution to a wider public. Especially in remote areas with little or no infrastructure. Internet in the refugee camps in Tanzania allowed us to send and recieve radio programmes using skype! So this is one area I would like to explore more, especially the use of mobile phones.

Let’s keep the conversation going, there is strength in unity as they say.

Cheers! Jocelyne

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