Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Africa: The Radio Scene Tells All

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Africa: The Radio Scene Tells All

Article excerpt

Radio, the most widely used medium in Africa, can only flourish on democratic soil, which helps to explain why private stations are thriving in the west and not in the centre of the continent

Chad has only six private radio stations, while Mali boasts 100... What explains this tremendous disparity? The two countries are similar on several counts. They are the same size (a little over 1,200,000 square kilometres), and neither has access to the sea. Both were French colonies and lived through long years of military dictatorship after achieving independence in 1960. And last year, they ranked among the world's poorest countries, with a per capita income of $261 for Mali and $240 for Chad.

"An unfavourable political environment and socio-cultural factors" slow down the development of radio pluralism, says Gilbert Maoundodji, director of FM Liberte, Chad's second independent radio station, launched last year. "The people who govern here have not yet completely assimilated the values of collective action, freedom, tolerance and democracy. That sets up a roadblock to initiative."

A country's political context rubs off on its airwaves. Mali, which held free elections in 1992 and has set up democratic institutions that function reasonably well, launched its first private radio station in March 1991. Radio Bamakan paved the way for a host of others, including Radio Liberte, Radio Kayira and Kledu FM.

In early 1993, Chad settled for a parody of a "national conference," generally intended as a broad policy consultation. Yet it only strengthened the power of President Idriss Deby, who took the reins through armed force. As a result, even religious stations found it difficult to make a breakthrough. The first Catholic station, La Voix du Paysan ("Voice of the peasants"), started broad-casting in 1996. The lay station Dja FM followed suit only three years later. Other stations, including FM Liberte, Radio Brakos, and the brand new Duji Lokar FM ("Morning Star") came later. And plans for a private weekly radio station, L'Observateur, are on the verge of fruition.

Confiscating equipment "needing repair"

Chad's example is emblematic of Central Africa as a whole, which seemed to have a lead over its western neighbours when Africa N[degrees]1, the first and only French-language pan-African radio station, began broadcasting in Gabon in 1980. But since African states began turning to democracy in the early 1990s, West Africa has witnessed an explosion of independent radio stations: their number has soared to over 400. In Central Africa, however, private investment in broadcasting remains minimal. Chronic instability has set the region ten years back. Most countries there, including the Central African Republic and the Republic of the Congo, are beleaguered by simmering armed conflicts, if not all-out war, as in Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

In the eastern part of the DRC, for example, rebels have confiscated the few private radio stations that existed before the August 1998 war. Radio Muungano's transmitter was taken to Uganda in October 2000 on the pretext that it needed repairs, and to date has not been returned. When they don't control programme content, insurgent groups simply do away with the equipment. The government's methods are just as drastic. In September 2000, Radio Television Kin Malebo (RTKM) was nationalized outright and three private television networks closed down. Only religious radio stations are allowed to broadcast, as long as they steer clear of politics.

In countries at peace, such as Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Cameroon, the brakes on pluralism are often intitutional. Since 1990, when a law on broadcasting freedom was passed, the Cameroon government has used all kinds of subterfuge to prevent the emergence of private radio, with the exception of rural and community stations launched by UNESCO or the Intergovernmental Francophone Agency. …

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