Radio in the Line of Fire

Jean-​​Paul Marthoz © Anne-Marie Impe

Yacuiba, Bolivia, 29 October 2012. Masked individuals force their way into Radio Popular’s studio and attack its director Fernando Vidal. They douse him with gasoline and strike a match. The journalist suffers second degree burns. At the time of the attack, Fernando Vidal was discussing the rampant smuggling in this region near the Argentine border.

Cabanatuan, Philippines, 8 November 2012. Julius Cauzo, radio journalist for station DWJJ and vice-president of the Nueva Ecija Press Club, was shot by a gunman on a motorcycle. Known for his criticism of local politicians, he had been the target of many reprisals and death threats.

Doba, Chad, 14 November 2012. Alnodji Mbairaba, editor for community radio station The Farmer’s Voice, and two other journalists are threatened by local authorities. A few weeks earlier, the station had broadcast a series of reports in which citizens had accused the municipality of “abuse of power, mismanagement and questionable hiring practices that favoured attractive women.”

Between 1992 and 2012, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 20% of journalists killed in the world worked in radio. However, these percentages spike in some countries — like in Somalia, where 65% of murdered journalists worked in radio, in Colombia (63%), the Philippines (51%) and Honduras (40%).

Some deaths are related to violence in armed conflict. In Somalia, journalists are regularly targeted by rival factions. In Mali, broadcasters have been attacked by Islamist militias who have controlled the north of the country since early 2012.

These attacks most often take place during peacetime. Radio journalists, who are often local journalists, “continue to face daily challenges in situations that have not reached the threshold of an armed conflict, but may characterized by violence, lawlessness and repression”, says Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression.

Vulnerabilities

“Radio journalists are a group highly vulnerable to violent attacks,” says Elisabeth Witchel, a CPJ consultant. These attacks against local radio journalists rarely appear on the radar screen of international audiences. “Many work in communities outside the capital. Their reporting on alleged wrongdoings by local power figures who often operate with impunity in those communities makes them targets. In nearly all of these cases no suspects have been prosecuted.”

An Attack Against the Community

Attacks against radio journalists have a particular impact. Radio is often the most popular media in countries affected by high levels of illiteracy and poverty. In remote areas far removed from large centres, the lack of transport and telecommunications infrastructure makes access to other media like print, television and Internet more difficult. This reinforces the role and power of radio stations, which are often the only source of information on local issues and controversies.

Local radio and, in particular, community radio relay the concerns and demands of civil society and often play a role in education. Without radio, citizens of these forgotten regions would be completely at the mercy of untouchable authority figures.

An Attack Against Society

The murder of a journalist is always an attack against society. As UNESCO emphasizes in the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity,  “The safety of journalists and the struggle against impunity for their killers are essential to preserve the fundamental right to freedom of expression. [It] is an individual right, for which no one should be killed, but it is also a collective right, which empowers populations through facilitating dialogue, participation and democracy, and thereby makes autonomous and sustainable development possible.”

The Lima Declaration of November 2011, adopted by the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), insists upon the need to protect community radio workers against “acts of ... institutional or criminal violence that looks to silence the organizations of the civil society.”

On the front line of information, radio journalists are often the first to find themselves in the line of fire of “the powers-that-be” that they scrutinize. In the movement to defend freedom of the press, there is no doubt that community radio journalists deserve more visibility — not only due to the extraordinary risks that they face, but because of the greater social service that they perform.

It is here, at the world's end, in local radio, where the reality of the freedom of the media is truly tested.

- Jean-Paul Marthoz

About the Author

Advisor to the Committee to Protect Journalists (New York), international political columnist for Le Soir (Brussels) and Vice-Chairman of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch, Jean-Paul Marthoz teaches international journalism at the UCL (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium) and the ethics of information at IHECS (Brussels, Belgium).  He is also the author of numerous books on journalism and international politics, including "And now the world at a glance", "The media and the new world disorder" (GRIP, 2006), "International Journalism" (De Boeck University Press, 2008) and "Covering migration" (De Boeck University Press, 2011). He was project director at the International Federation of Journalists and European Director of Information at Human Rights Watch.

Jean-Paul Marthoz authorizes radios and other users to use some or all of this article to celebrate World Radio Day.

Disclaimer

The designations employed in this paper and the presentation of material therein do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNESCO and do not in any way commit the Organization.

 

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