Africa: the radio scene tells all

By Eyoum Nganguè - 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 Liberté, 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 Liberté, Radio Kayira and Klédu 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 Déby, 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 broadcasting in 1996. The lay station Dja FM followed suit only three years later. Other stations, including FM Liberté, 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°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 Télévision Kin Malébo (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.

For example, Radio France Internationale (RFI), which broadcasts throughout Africa, could not be received on FM in Yaoundé until February this year. “We had been in contact with Cameroon since 1992, as part of a cooperation agreement to include RFI in the national radio station’s technical structure,” says Hugues Salord, RFI’s director for international affairs. “But we were unable to clinch the deal until the decree of April 3, 2000, which benefited not only RFI, but Africa N°1, the BBC, and other local private radio stations.”

It took ten years for the decree to be signed, but the obstacles remain. Officials have increased administrative complications, imposed very short application deadlines (four months) and demanded exorbitant fees for operating licenses–$15,400 in a country where a civil servant’s average monthly salary is $120. Most of the proposed projects were therefore eliminated, and one of the stations that had operated until then on an experimental basis, Radio Soleil, had to stop broadcasting in June 2000.

The art of bureaucratic subversion

As a free medium which reaches a wider population than print, partly because of broadcasting in local dialects, partly because of high illiteracy rates, radio arouses the mistrust and hostility of political leaders. Hence their inclination to maintain a government monopoly on broadcasting to foil an independent media that is often virulent and close to the opposition. The airwaves are strategically important for politicians, who will go to great lengths to control them by any means. For example, on February 22, 1994, Gabonese army tanks destroyed the facilities of Radio Liberté. The government later claimed it was because the opposition was using the station as a propaganda mouthpiece!

“Radio Liberté? It was the devil’s radio… The army and security services… destroyed their facilities. We’ve returned to the normal game of democracy since,” wrote Gabon’s president, Omar Bongo, in his recently published book, Blanc comme Nègre.

Bongo’s comments illustrate the demonization of free radio in Central Africa. The ghost of Rwanda’s Radio Télévision des Mille Collines (RTLM), which played a key role in mobilizing the killers who perpetrated the 1994 genocide, still haunts the region. Today, political leaders disinclined to accept broadcasting freedom point to it as an example, conveniently forgetting that RTLM was initially close to the Kigali government. The result: as soon as a radio station strays from the official line, it is suspected of inciting rebellion or tribal hatred. Equatorial Guinea has taken drastic steps to avoid that risk: not a single private radio station has been allowed on its soil!

Besides political factors, the weakness of civil society has clearly helped slow down the growth of independent radio in Central Africa. Local NGOs and grassroots organizations are not involved enough in national political debate. This results in indifference on the part of donors likely to help set up radio stations, especially by training staff and supplying equipment. “I obtained a frequency last year, but can’t afford to purchase equipment,” says Begoto Oulatar, director of N’Djamena Bi-hebdo, Chad’s most famous newspaper, which is now branching onto the airwaves.

Economic woes also prevent private radio from gaining a foothold in central Africa. Public networks receive the lion’s share of advertising, the only source of income for independent radio, which cannot count on user fees. To stay out of trouble, businesses avoid advertising on stations with a reputation of being hostile to the government. Take the case of Gabon’s Radio Soleil, which rose from the ashes of Radio Liberté and was suspended five times in four years. During a 1999 Yaoundé conference on pluralist media, Makaga Virginus, a station representative, explained companies’ reluctance to invest on its airwaves: “we were not subservient enough to the central government, which has very close ties to the business world.”

Electronic inroads to state monopolies

But there are reasons to be optimistic about the future of radio in Africa. New technology is making equipment lighter, smaller and less expensive. Direct access to information on the Internet will probably prompt officials to loosen their grip. And there is likely to be a change of mentality with the slow but steady influx of foreign radio networks such as RFI, the BBC and Voice of America, which may end up softening political rigidity.

Local radio stations created by international and non-governmental organizations, such as the Central African Republic’s Radio Ndeke Luka, (heir to the United Nations radio in Bangui), or Burundi’s RSF-Bonesah FM (founded by veterans of Radio Umwizero, an initiative of the Association for Humanitarian Action), will also help along the process. Worldwide groups like the Panos Institute, the Research and Technology Exchange Group (Gret), the Hirondelle Foundation and Search for Common Ground, which have contributed to radio pluralism in West Africa, are beginning to focus on Central Africa.

The audiovisual landscape is changing in most countries. A case in point is Cameroon, where the TV Max private television network, founded in August 2000, was barely two months old when the public network adjusted its programmes to compete! Why don’t private radio stations do the same? If the area acquired a network of groups and NGOs working to promote independent radio, there is hope that Central Africa would soon catch up with its neighbours in the west.

The 2001 Free Frequencies festival, an initiative of Kinshasa’s Réveil FM (from March 19 to 22), was a step in the right direction. It brought together several Central African operators and has already laid the groundwork for a regional organization to defend the rights of private radio.

Eyoum Nganguè is Cameroonian journalist

Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.

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