Once a country where Muslims and non-Muslims married and lived together, the Central African Republic (CAR) is now divided along ethnic and religious lines that have pitted communities against one another. Atrocities committed by now ex-Seleka fighters, a coalition of mostly Muslim rebel groups, against Christian communities elicited reprisals against Muslims by Christian militias known as anti- Balaka. This tit-for-tat conflict has produced a large-scale humanitarian crisis in a forgotten country where UN officials have repeatedly warned of a risk of genocide, and where both sides may have committed war crimes.
Since the Seleka overran Bangui in March 2013, the country has been immersed in a crisis that has killed thousands, displaced over 550,000 people internally and over 134,000 across the region and left almost half of the population (2.5 million out of 4.6m) in need of assistance. The crisis is slowly but surely emptying the country of Muslims, a forced exodus that some are ready to call ethnic cleansing.+Muriel Masse, Opinion and Debate: Lets Be Clear: We Are Witnessing a True Cleansing in CAR, MSF, 28 May 2014, http://www.msf.org.uk/article/opinion-and-debate-lets-be-clear-we-are-witnessing-true-cleansing-car Bangui has seen its Muslim population reduced from 130,000 to under 10,000. Those who still remain survive in a few guarded enclaves around town.
With the links between Christians and Muslims seemingly all but destroyed, where and in what condition are the local media, a key channel potentially capable of facilitating communication and dialogue between all sides? What role are they going to play in the debate about the future of the country? In late 2012 and early 2013, when the Seleka militias started advancing towards Bangui, the local media in the north and north-west of the country went silent. For Pascal Chirha, a media expert from the Panos Institute who has lived in CAR for several years, its not just a humanitarian crisis but also an information crisis. Central Africans are living in complete darkness as they have no access to information.+IMS, The Central African Republic: Media In a Complex Emergency, International Media Support, February 2014, http://www.mediasupport.org/publication/the-central-african-republic-media-in-a-complex-emergency/ According to Agathe, a widow living in the church compound in Bossangoa, a town 165 miles north of Bangui: Now it is all rumours; we live in fear.
Mapping the media disaster
Before the crisis there were 29 functioning radio stations in CAR. In March 2014, only 15 were operational, six of them in Bangui.+Map Depicts Radio Landscape in CAR, Internews, 9 April 2014, https://internews.org/map-depicts-radio-landscape-central-african-republic Others, in a country twice the size of the UK, were looted and stopped broadcasting at least 18 months ago. Even the national broadcaster, Radio Centrafrique, which is the voice of state radio outside Bangui, went mute and has yet to come back. While French broadcaster Radio France Internationale (RFI) is very popular across French-speaking Africa, people in CAR are hungrier than ever for news about what is happening in their local communities and other places across the country which RFI does not provide. For the few remaining local stations, the broadcast signal usually does not go beyond 2530km outside the capital.
Conditions in the country are disastrous for journalistic objectivity and balance, especially when reporting on the embattled Muslim community. Radio Voix de la Paix, the only radio station run by Muslims, was spared, but its journalists went silent, scared for their lives. Muslim figures are often vilified in the local press. As a onemonth media monitoring programme led by Internews in May showed, while there are no reports of hate speech in the radio stations monitored in Bangui, newspapers published in the capital can do more harm than good because of their unethical or unprofessional reporting. Newspapers print very limited yet highly politicised and seemingly influential print runs: while not widely read by the population, particularly outside Bangui, newspapers can be read out on air, spreading their biased influence.
Without proper training and resources, journalists are easy targets for pressure from armed groups. From phone threats to physical harassment and intimidation, journalists in CAR live under tremendous stress.+Media Under Pressure: Protect the Rights of Journalists in Central African Republic, Internews, 24 June 2014 https://internews.org/our-stories/project-updates/call-for-protection-journalists-CAR While the tragic death on 11 May of Camille Lepage, a French photojournalist, reminded the world of the dangers international journalists are exposed to while covering CAR, we often forget about those Central Africans who report on their country and its crisis.
Historically, working conditions for journalists in CAR have been poor and characterised by low (and inconsistently paid) wages, a lack of resources and access to professional training and corruption.+IMS, ‘Media in a Complex Emergency’ Ethics in the exercise of journalism is another major challenge, as is the understated, generally neglected, physiological impact that the conflict has had on local reporters. Local journalists are also victims of the crisis. Not only do they have to help their families, but they also have to deal with trauma and face their own angst and prejudices. Many, whether they admit it or not, are psychologically battered.
Local media: impartial despite suffering?
Although CAR has not experienced long periods of stability, most journalists and reporters had never been confronted with the levels of violence seen in recent months. Some have seen death up close, had good friends killed, visited foul-smelling morgues, been threatened, been victims of attempted rape or had their homes looted or destroyed, some several times. Some managed to flee the country while others simply decided to change jobs. Virginie, Chief Editor from the local Association of Journalists for Human Rights (RJDH), confirms that these painful experiences have had an important impact on her journalistic skills: Often when I write, I tend to blame the Seleka much more than I should and I sometimes have trouble putting things in proper perspective. Providing adequate support to local media, from conflict-sensitive journalism training to counselling, is vital.
In CAR, Internews provides training and mentoring to journalists from the RJDH and its network of 18 community correspondents across the country, with a special focus on inside-the-newsroom conflict-sensitive journalism and gender-based violence training and mentoring. Security allowing, a roving trainer travels across the west and north-west of the country training correspondents and staff at their own radio stations in the provinces on conflictsensitive journalism and, more generally, on improving the professionalism and quality of the reporting coming from those areas.
Gender-based violence is a key issue for the RJDH. Along with NGOs working on the issue, Internews organises hands-on workshops for local reporters on how to cover gender-based violence, how to speak to and interview victims and how to report and discuss this type of violence on radio programmes.
The RJDH produces daily news bulletins distributed by email and social media to people in and outside CAR. In order to reach local people off the Internet (the great majority of the country), the RJDH also produces a daily humanitarian radio programme in French and Sango in its own radio studio in Bangui. The radio show is distributed to local FM stations and is broadcast in Short Wave (SW) on 6030KHz through a local SW station that since early June has received a monthly fee and training. To enable community groups in different locations to listen to the radio show, Internews will distribute over 1,000 wind-up solar radios with SW receivers. Every month, the RJDH produces over 180 articles from 40 different locations across the country that are read daily by more than 800 unique visitors to their news website and shared with thousands of others on Twitter and Facebook.+See http://www.rjdh-rca.net, @RJDH_RCA and https://www.facebook.com/RJDHRCA
No silver bullet
Internews, along with other international media assistance organisations such as Fondation Hirondelle,+See http://www.hirondelle.org/radio-ndeke-luka/?lang=en which set up and ran Radio Ndeke Luka (Search for Common Ground), and the Panos Institute, which supports the CAR Media Observatory (OMCA) and other local journalist associations, are working to rehabilitate and improve the physical and technical capacities of local media outlets and journalists to assist them in the more professional exercise of their work. As 18 local journalism organisations and international media support agencies working in CAR said in a joint statement in June: A more professional media community and the constant availability of good quality reporting are now essential if peace is to be restored in the CAR.+Media Under Pressure: Protect the Rights of Journalists in Central African Republic, June 24, 2014 https://internews.org/our-stories/project-updates/call-for-protection-journalists-CAR
Journalists have a responsibility to report timely, accurate and impartial information to their local communities, and to act as a true vehicle for dialogue and a national platform for reconciliation across the country. Local media is not a silver bullet in a protracted, complex crisis like CAR. But neither can a peaceful, accountable democracy emerge without it. Robust, free and independent media is demanded, and very often paid for, in the West why not in CAR?
Jacobo Quintanilla is the Director of Humanitarian Communication Programs at Internews. Jonathan Pedneault is the Conflict-Sensitive Journalism Trainer of Internews in CAR. Internews is one of the founding members of the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) Network (www.cdacnetwork.org).