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Caroline Vuillemin: Radio as a platform for dialogue


Caroline Vuillemin, Fondation Hirondelle

Radio remains the most efficient information tool in crisis situations because of its ability to reach a large number of people in a short time. On World Radio Day (13 Februaru), which in 2016 focuses on “radio in emergency situations”, Caroline Vuillemin, Director of Operations at Fondation Hirondelle (Switzerland), talks about the role of radio especially in fragile StatesIt is in these countries that there is the most urgent need for independent media that promote good citizenship, and it is in these countries that establishing them is most difficult. Fondation Hirondelle has been working at this for 20 years, throughout the world. Almost all its projects focus on radio. 

Interview by Jasmina Šopova

Why radio? 

If you want to reach the maximum number of people especially in countries where transport, which is needed to distribute the written press, is deficient and where the electricity supply is problematic, radio remains the most accessible media platform. This is even moretrue in crisis situations where populations are forced to move or to flee.

Radio is also a channel for spoken news and information which doesn’t require literacy, which allows it to reach – in different languages – a much wider audience than the written media, including social networks.
In comparison with social media, radio has another big advantage: its users are anonymous, which is not at all the case for users of the Internet. And we know that in many countries operators are obliged to supply details of their users to the government.

In terms of cost, it is a form of media which does not require heavy investments. Nowadays you can go reporting with a recorder and a portable computer, and that is enough to edit the programme on the spot. Broadcasting has also become easier thanks to digital technology. You don’t need a whole team of cameramen, lighting technicians, presenters and so on to produce a quality report. That gives radio a lot of flexibility and capacity to react quickly.

One last point in answer to your question: Fondation Hirondelle was set up in 1995 following the Rwandan genocide by a group of radio journalists who loved radio and knew how the power of the voice could create a strong link with the public, precisely because the absence of visual images awakes listeners’ imagination. A year earlier, the Swiss section of Reporters without Borders had set up Radio Agatashya (Hirondelle) in the part of Zaire bordering Rwanda as an antidote to the notorious Radio des Milles Collines. Fondation Hirondelle took over that radio, which operated until October 1996

You have said that one of the advantages of radio is to address people in their own language. In how many languages are the programmes that you have created or supported broadcast?

We adapt to the demographic reality of the country concerned. Right now we have nine operations worldwide, of which one is a website in English and French covering transitional justice throughout the world JusticeInfo.Net and eight are radio stations which broadcast in a total of some 20 languages.

To give you an example, Studio Tamani in Mali produces daily news in five languages: Bambara, French, Peulh, Sonrhaï and Tamasheq.

Studio Tamani: interview with Lazare Eloundou Assomo, UNESCO representative in Mali. © Fondation Hirondelle

In 2000, we launched Radio Ndeke Luka, in the Central African Republic in French and Sango. That reflects the linguistic reality of the country. All the CAR’s 3.5 million people speak Sango and there are no linguistic divides, unlike in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for example, where Lingala and Swahili mark their own “territory” in the west and east of the country. In the DRC, Radio Okapi d also broadcasts in three other languages: French, Kikongo et Tshiluba.

But it was in Liberia with Star Radio ethat we broadcast in the most languages, 17 to be precise! We thought listeners might find that a bit over the top, but not at all. Each language had its own broadcast schedule and that worked very well, helping to set the daily schedule of listeners who knew at what time they would tune in to Star Radio. Since Liberians all speak several languages, that also allowed them to compare the programmes and reassure themselves that our programmes were exactly the same in all languages. That of course adds to our credibility. Because one of our fundamental values is professionalism.

What are you other principles?

Honesty, serving the people, respect for diversity. These values are enshrined in our Charter and are reflected in the make-up of our editorial teams, which include men and women of different ages and of different ethnic origins if the country is multi-ethnic.

As for journalistic principles, I stress that we provide news and information, not “messages”, that is, we provide reliable facts for people to make up their own minds, rather than telling them what they should think. Our media do not express opinions. They are independent and not subject to pressure from anybody.

Since we work in conflict and post-conflict countries, our editorial policy is based on promoting dialogue and respect for human rights, contributing to the rebuilding of societies and listening to the vital needs of the population. Our news and information priorities are based on these same criteria.

So a Fondation Hirondelle editorial team is composed mainly of local journalists. Is it difficult to
find journalists who are good enough?

There are good journalists in every country. What is rarer is good conditions for them to carry out their work. In State media, journalists often work under restrictions, whilst in the private media there also are various constraints. That prevents them from developing professionally. 

In the independent media that we support and create, it is local journalists who are in charge of producing news and information. In fact we do sometimes encounter problems. For example, in January this year we launched Studio Kalangou in Niger. We produce new bulletins, civic education programmes and a big debate programme which are broadcast by a network of partner radios throughout the country. The programmes are broadcast in French, Hausa and Zarma. We also want to produce them in Peulh and Tamashek, but for the moment we have not managed to find people with the necessary expertise in these two languages. This reflects the country’s reality: access to education and work in the North is more restricted than in other regions of the country. 

Studio Kalangou © Fondation Hirondelle

With regard to the supervision of our local teams, if we cannot find the right people locally we call on experts from outside, for example from Radio France, Radio Suisse romande (Swiss francophone radio), Radio Canada or RTBF (Belgian state broadcaster), to mention only French-speaking countries. Over the years we have developed a network that also enables us to call on Senegalese, Congolese or Ivorian experts. What counts is not their nationality but their expertise. We require them to do coaching, continuous training and transfer to the whole team the principles of editorial rigour, so that in a few years the journalists of today can become the editors of tomorrow. It is thanks to this approach that our teams in the CAR and DRC are now led by locals.

But we have to admit that training media directors and managers takes a lot of time. To fill these posts, editorial skills are not enough. They need to know how to manage a company and the mechanisms of development aid, to ensure the survival of the media outlet. 

Do you provide management training for locals? 

We held training courses in Switzerland and France, but it became evident that the reality of their countries was too far removed from the countries where the training was delivered. These courses certainly opened new perspectives for the trainees, which is very important, but the knowhow acquired could not be easily transferred to their contexts. We realized that it would be more effective to train them on the spot, with the constraints and realities that are their own, such as security, generating revenue and also the importance of tradition. I am talking, for example, about certain societies where it is not “acceptable” for the representative of one social group to give orders to the representative of another social group that is considered “superior”. Obviously, that sets training back a bit, and it is not in a training course in Switzerland that we are going to tackle such issues.

I must admit that our results are mixed on training of managers. One experience was Star Radio in Liberia. It was set up in 1997, at the time of the presidential elections that were won by Charles Taylor. In 2000, he ordered the shutdown of the radio station. The journalists lost their jobs, but were mostly reemployed in other local media. When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected in 2005, the ban was lifted and we relaunched the radio with the idea of creating a media business under local ownership. Between 2005 and 2008, we set up all the different things needed for sustainability: a legal entity that owned the radio, a Board, an advertising department. In 2008 we saw that the Board was not very solid and that the advertising department was only bringing in 20% of the budget needed. The Liberians let us know that we could now let them run their radio. Unfortunately, in 2010, Star Radio had emptied its coffers and had to close its doors. 

How can you make a radio sustainable in an unstable environment where it is nevertheless the most needed by the population? 

Training managers would no doubt be easier in a stable environment. I have already talked about the DRC and CAR where the teams are led by locals. In the case of Radio Ndeke Luka, the deep political crisis that has hit the country since 2013 almost caused it to shut down. But this radio station gained more listeners between 2000 and 2012, twice as many more than all the other local and international radios in the CAR! A year before the crisis, its advertising department was raising 30% of its operational costs.

There are times in life when you think about saving your own skin before that of your radio. The Board did not live up to its responsibilities, whereas the management team, which kept the radio going and faced the roadblocks under fire, has been psychologically weakened by the trauma. Responsibility for running a radio under such conditions is very heavy. I went to see them this January and I understood that they were at the end of their tether. They could not see the light at the end of the tunnel. We do not know what the attitude of the next government will be towards Radio Ndeke Luka. 

How are your relations with national authorities in crisis zones?

We always give priority to being transparent. We say publicly what we aim to do, that is provide factual, verified news and information, and we do what we say we are going to do. But we depend on official authorization to be able to broadcast in a country. In some cases, such as Radio Okapi in the DRC, we work with the UN, and it is the UN peacekeeping mission that signs agreements with the national authorities.

Studio Hirondelle - Guinée © Fondation Hirondelle

In such cases, our strategy is to work with existing media. We produce programmes at Studio Hirondelle in Conakry and broadcast them through a network of rural radios plus private radios in the capital. In Mali, we have requested broadcasting rights and in the meantime we partner with existing radio stations that share our values.

The media environment has changed a lot in the past 20 years. When Fondation Hirondelle started, there was a need to create radio stations from scratch. Now there are independent radios just about everywhere and it is possible to create partnerships with them. This is an approach which is becoming more and more common. 

What are the advantages of partnering with UN radios?

There are advantages for the UN missions as well as for us. I will give you an example. The UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC wanted to create a radio to unify the country. It should be the “radio of all Congolese” and not the “radio of the United Nations”. They needed media programming that would appeal to a wide audience and which went beyond the normal UN radio framework for broadcasting news about its mission.

Radio Okapi © Fondation Hirondelle

We brought our expertise: creating a team that could work in several languages, designing an editorial policy that fit the situation, building a network that covers the whole country. And so Radio Okapi was born. But without the UN logistics, telecommunications and security apparatus, we would not have been able to do anything.

Radio Okapi is considered a big success. Why is that? 

We completely succeeded in applying the principles and values of a broad-based radio station with wide appeal. This radio with, for example, its daily debate programme, has become a platform for dialogue in a divided country. Back in 2002, the fact that people in Kinshasa and Bukavu could hear the same thing at the same moment on the radio – whereas the country had been physically divided for years – was in itself a unifying factor. 

We knew that however divided people were they could be brought together through a national, independent radio station. We knew the airwaves could have a real impact on reunification, even before the peace process and elections. Okapi is the proof of this. 

How do you measure the impact?

Mostly by the level of audience. If people listen to us, it is because we are bringing them something, otherwise they would be wasting their time... and their batteries. Audience surveys show our programmes consistently in the top three in the countries where we are present.

That is the quantitative surveys on impact. But then, there’s the question of whether our programmes bring change (although I stress once again that we are not there to tell people what to do). To find out, we conduct qualitative audience surveys with focus groups of 10 to 12 people. These groups include men and women, listeners and non-listeners, people in rural and urban areas and so on. Overall, the answer we get is that peop

This is key for us, because it means these people will be in a position to make good choices, to plan for the future, manage their daily life, on the basis of the information they have received.

We have also learned from these surveys that our debate and dialogue programmes are particularly appreciated by the public because they allow people to participate actively, rather than just listening to ministers and VIPs spouting on the radio.

As for long-term impact, it is not easy to measure. One may wonder, for example, why there is still so much violence and instability in eastern DRC 13 years after Radio Okapi was launched. Or Radio Ndeke Luka has been running for 15 years and the CAR spilled over into violence again in 2014... But we know these situations are not triggered only by the information people get through the media. So how do you measure the impact?

Radio Ndeke Luka © Fondation Hirondelle

A team of American researchers proposes to launch a survey on the impact of Studio Kalangou in Niger. Since the Studio has only just been launched, they will be able to follow how it develops over a threeyear period, after which we will have elements to analyse the impact.

What was the reason you set up Studio Kalangou? The February 2016 elections?

Niger’s society is fraught with various tensions. There are tensions between the generations: more than 50% of the population is under 20 and the authorities are disconnected from the youth, who also lack education and perspectives. There are also tensions linked to climate change, and although there are no religious divides as such, there is Islamic radicalization. In this context, there was no media outlet targeting the whole of the population.

That is why we wanted set up a production studio in the country to broadcast its programmes across the whole country through a network of partner radios.

It was the donors who insisted that the Studio be operational for the February 2016 elections.

Who are the donors and what is the cost of the operation?​​​​​​​

To start from scratch, that is build a production studio, create a team of 20 journalists, train them, build a network of correspondents, install equipment at partners radios so they can receive and broadcast the signal, recruit an editor and trainer and technicians, the operation costs about 1 million Euros a year for the first 24 months. The Swiss government has covered the budget for the launch and the European Union the operational budget.

What are your future projects?​​​​​​​

We are currently working on three projects in countries that are in a political or security crisis. For example, we did an evaluation mission in Ukraine, where we saw that what should be media information has become a conflict between the propaganda of different sides. The idea is to work with TV stations, radios and websites on thematic programmes - decentralization, agriculture and other aspects of the country’s reality – which these media would include in their programming schedules.

We also have a project in Myanmar which is well advanced, dealing with the peace process and the problem of minorities who do not have access to independent information in their own languages. One of the big changes now under way in Myanmar is the fact that MPs are getting more power. We have proposed a project that would open the doors of parliament to the media, which is not the case at the moment. Parliament has given its approval and we are waiting for the donors’ response.

The third project, on which we are advancing slowly, is Libya. It is even more complex than the two other countries. There is a real need for independent news and information. Nearly all the media broadcasting from inside and outside the country are partisan. There is no platform where different points of view can be shared and discussed. We are in the process of drawing up a proposal and looking for partners, in other words we are at a preliminary stage.

Caroline Vuillemin

Director of Operations at Fondation Hirondelle since 2008, Caroline Vuillemin started her career at the Fondation in 2003 working on the Radio Okapi project (DRC). That experience marked her and strengthened her determination to work on developing independent media projects that promote good citizenship in conflict and post-conflict situations.

She currently directs eight radio operations: in Mali (Studio Tamani), Guinea (Studio Hirondelle Guinea), Côte d’Ivoire (Studio Mozaik), Niger (Studio Kalangou), Central African Republic (Radio Ndeke Luka), the DRC (Hirondelle Communication), Tunisia (support to Radio Tunisienne) and Burkina Faso (support to the RTB).