No medium can reach more people - especially in Africa - than radio. In conflict zones, such as DR Congo, it can even save lives under the right conditions. Reason enough to mark World Radio Day (13.02.2015)
"Bonjour, Congo" says the radio presenter as the music fades out. He can be confident that there is an audience out there listening. Ten million people live in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and most of them love radio.
"I often listen in the morning, when I wake up, on my mobile phone as well," said Kinshasa resident Tschipo Ilunga. "I like hearing people talk, I like the prayers and I like programs that offer help and advice" said Maitre Kongo. In Silet Moussasa's small shop, the radio is on all the time. "Mostly for the news," he says, "you need to know what's going on."
There are more than 200 radio stations in DR Congo, that's more than all the television channels and newspapers put together. Digital Congo is one of DW's partner stations with a daily audience of several million. "Most Congolese listen to the radio," said Severin Bamany, who is a member of the management team. "Radio is still the dominant medium in this country," he added. Radios are portable and as they run on batteries, they still work when there is a power cut. In DR Congo where the majority of people can neither read nor write, nor afford a television set, radio is the gateway to the wider world and to one's own country as well. DR Congo is huge, chronically instable and almost unfathomable.
Radio as a peacemaker
War is not just about battling for territory, but also about winning hearts and minds. Independent news gathering becomes difficult, if not impossible, in wartime and propaganda can be a weapon.
At the start of the millennium, DR Congo was a fractured, conflict-ridden country. In the west, the then president Laurent Kabila held sway, the north and northeast were in rebel hands, with backing from Uganda, and in the Kivu regions in the east, militia funded by Rwanda were strengthening their positions. "Each of those parts of the country had their own radio services and what they ended up broadcasting was hate radio," says radio coach and consultant David Smith. "They told rumors about what the other side was doing and not doing. There was very little truth circulating in the DRC."
That was why the Canadians decided to start Radio Okapi - under United Nations protection - in a barracks in Kinshasa. The Okapi is a mammal related to the giraffe which is found in the Ituri region of DR Congo. It is classified as an endangered species. Opaki - the radio station - was equally as exotic when it went on the air on February 25, 2002. Its mission was to disseminate independent, credible news and information, the very opposite of propaganda. The staff were mostly Congolese journalists reporting in the five main languages from studios in Goma, Bukavu and Kisangani as well as in Kinshasa.
David Smith, who was involved in the project, looks back on what they accomplished in those days with some pride. "Shortly after the station went on the air, the head of the UN mission at the time, Amos Namanga Ngongi, went to the UN Security Council and said - and I am very happy to quote him - 'Radio Okapi has helped electronically to destroy the front line in the Congolese war.'"
That same year the warring parties agreed to a peace deal, an interim government was formed under the leadership of Joseph Kabila, the current president. Radio Okapi is now one of the most popular radio stations in the country and it is flanked by an equally popular website. Its output consists of music, sport, culture and politics - ranging from the big government scandals to affairs of lesser stature in the provinces.
Obstacles to objective reporting
But independent, impartial reporting comes at a price. Many journalists - including some who worked for Radio Okapi - were killed while reporting from the war zone. Objectivity suffers in crisis-ridden states like DR Congo because journalists are put under pressure, threatened or persecuted. The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders in its most recent ranking of global press freedoms listed DR Congo in 150th place out of 180. Reporting free of interference can be difficult, said Digital Congo's Severin Bamany. "There are repeated efforts to recruit us journalists for some political end. Then we are told you are either for the government or the opposition. If we say we are not on one side or the other, then the problems start. But we want to be impartial and inform people as objectively as possible," he said.
Journalists also face financial pressures. They have families to feed, but most jobs in the media are poorly paid. Smith says this can lead to journalists accepting bribes "either to write a story in a certain way, or not to write it at all." At Radio Okapi the wages are therefore above average. Their journalists will never become rich, but they can report without worrying where the next meal is coming from.
Smith is no longer with Radio Okapi; he has moved on to other projects elsewhere in Africa. In northern Nigeria, he is helping to start up a station that will deliver security advice to people exposed to Boko Haram's terrorist attacks - not just in Nigeria but also in Niger, Cameroon and Chad.