The past year’s religious violence and revenge killings in the Central African Republic are not only causing a humanitarian crisis; they’re also causing a media crisis.
Christian and Muslim fighters have threatened journalists and looted local newspapers and radio stations, curtailing access to reliable information throughout the country for the past year. Crippled by theft or frightened into silence by one or another of the warring factions, dozens of media outlets have closed. Among the few still functioning are a handful of radio stations, of which only one broadcasts on a daily basis, thanks to international support.
Reporting in peril
“Journalists are caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Clea Kahn-Sriber, head of the Africa desk for the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters without Borders. “Whatever they report on, the group will feel that they’re being partisan and that they’re only telling part of the truth.”
The violence against media is a product of the deadly tensions between Christian and Muslim rebel factions that erupted into widespread killings after a Muslim rebel group, the Seleka, deposed Christian President Francois Bozize last March. Thousands of Christians were killed and hundreds of thousands fled their homes. Last fall, Christian militias called anti-Balaka (“anti-machete”) organized revenge killings, repeating the same pattern with Muslims as the victims.
Both sides in the conflict have also attacked media outlets whom they accuse of taking sides. Among the most common targets are radio stations, which play a key information role in Central African Republic because of low literacy rates. With low internet and cellphone penetration, access to other media is now almost nonexistent.
There were once 29 functional radio stations throughout the country. Now, all six of the stations that are still functioning are in the capital, Bangui, said Jacobo Quintanilla, who is the director of humanitarian communication programs at Internews. There are no radio stations known to still be functioning outside Bangui. The result, he said, is that Bangui has turned into a “city of rumors.”
Quintanilla said looting has caused most of the shutdowns. Expensive broadcast equipment is an obvious target for theft, and few stations have the means to replace it. “In some of these stations they’ve looted even doors and windows,” he said.
Outside the capital, the isolation from news is even greater. “Many people, especially outside Bangui, don’t even have [access to radio],” said Joanne Mariner, senior researcher for Amnesty International, in an email interview. She recently traveled to the country. “Their source of news is their family and neighbors.”
Residents with internet connections or access to international broadcasts seek news from BBC, Radio France Internationale, Agence France-Presse, and others. The few local radio stations still operating often rely on reports from the French services, said Kahn-Sriber. “The international outlook is the dominant one in the way people talk about the situation,” she said.
But most foreign correspondents make brief reporting trips and don’t venture far from the capital. They don’t provide the kind of local, breaking news that people need in order to secure themselves from attacks.
The journalism that remains
One of the few local news voices that remains an authoritative source is Radio Ndeke Luka, a 10-year-old community radio station started as a United Nations project. The station is now part of a network funded by Hirondelle, a Swiss media development nonprofit. Ndeke Luka means “bird of good omen” in Sango, one of the CAR’s official languages. Amidst the violence, it manages to produce daily, hyperlocal reporting about the conflict.
“We’ve decided at certain moments to let those who are in pain or those who want to reassure their families and their friends to express themselves over the phone on our broadcast,” said Sylvie Panika, director of Radio Ndeke Luka, in an email interview. Panika said she believes the station has been able to avoid the threats targeted at other news outlets because it works to present a reconciliatory message. “We need to fight the fire, not fuel it. It’s our responsibility as broadcasters,” she said. But the station’s reach is limited; it’s had to close a couple times recently and its transmitter in Bangui is damaged, according to Quintanilla, who visited the station recently. Where once it was heard in much of Central African Republic, it’s now available mainly in Bangui.
Panika said her journalists are afraid of further attacks. “In a crisis situation, people are thirsty for information, and we are obliged to brave everything to respond to these vital needs of the listeners, even though the risks are very real,” she said.
So how has Ndeke Luka survived, even with these threats, while so many small stations have shut down? It stems largely from the educational support of Hirondelle, which has invested resources into developing an editorially independent business department at Ndeke Luka. It’s allowed Ndeke Luka to have modern facilities, an active business team selling ads and adequate technologies to broadcast throughout the country. The station has brought in $230,000 in advertising revenue, which was essential to repair and rebuild the station after the violence and lootings.
Now there is hope that this sort of funding can help stations elsewhere in the country. Hirondelle has seen increased donations from many different sources to take action. The nonprofit wants to use it to fund 10 new community radio stations similar to Ndeke Luka in the CAR.
Internews is taking a similar approach. In a report published on January 10 by International Media Support, Internews stated its intention to start a new project with a local human rights-focused NGO to connect and train 13 community radio stations on how to avoid further violence.
“Positive messages need to be transferred to a large group of people. People have to participate and ask questions,” Quintanilla said. “You need to have tools to provide that.”