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I was at a lecture recently at Columbia University’s SIPA school, at an event thrown by Anne Nelson, who runs a project on Media in International Conflict, and is the former director of CPJ. Anne’s got a panel together to talk about Radio Okapi, The UN’s radio initiative in the Congo, managed by Fondation Hirondelle.

Her speakers are Jean-Marie Etter, head of Hirondelle, Martin Sebujangwe, Okapi’s editor-in-chief, and Shira Loewenberg, director of the Outward Bound Center for Peacebuilding and a former UN information officer, and Sandra Coliver of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

Anne asks us to look at a “compelling topic not adequately explored in the past” – how the role of local media can play a positive, rather than negative, role in conflict, and asserts that too often the media is viewed as a negative force in conflict – citing Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, and other cases of incitement. The presumed owner of these assumptions is, it emerges, the UN and others influential in post-conflict peacebuilding policy.

Arguably, this positive has been explored in theory and practice in many situations already, especially in the former Soviet Union, former Yugoslavia, and various Asian countries – Indonesia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan come to mind as examples. But tonight is primarily about the Congo, and other Hirondelle projects. Hirondelle often works with state broadcasters or state surrogates, and Okapi is an example of that. It’s local in the sense that it broadcasts on the FM band in eight locations around Congo, with local programming streams in each, plus dozens of repeaters around the country, but it’s designed as a surrogate public broadcaster under UN mandate, and it claims a national reach. It’s not locally owned or operated, and funding comes almost exclusively from external sources, primarily the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC, MONUC. The DRC, it turns out, also has over 300 local FM radio stations, most not part of the Okapi network, but with many taking Okapi programming.

The funding source turns out to be the okapi in the in the lecture hall (to mangle a cliche) for the evening’s discussion – Radio Okapi has cannot exist without external funding sources, says Sebujanwe. The implication – control over content and independence of action for the station and its journalists, and whether the UN should be able to assert control over content. Nelson’s example – UN peacekeeping soldiers committing crimes, and the UN rep. asking the station not to cover the story. The question turns, for each speaker, on a couple of key points:

– from Etter, the insistence that “strict” journalism, the enforcement of codes of ethics within the newsroom, the independence of information, and the credibility of the broadcaster provide a platform for a national dialogue, and should be considered integral to the peacebuilding effort.

– from Sebujangwe, the need to build and maintain professionalism for DRC journalists, and acknowledging that security concerns can affect their ability to report.

– from Loewenberg, the differing objectives of UN peacekeeping (DPKO) information officers, and independent journalism. The former “is to inform and faciliatate international media, inform local populations about the UN mission, and inform UN staff. Supporting local media is not a primary target, and helps only when it helps get the UN message out or otherwise meets their priorities.” The latter is about providing accurate, impartial information to local audiences.

– from Coliver, the legal basis by which the UN can justify supporting an “independent” media within the framework of a peacekeeping mission, via the protection of freedom of expression in conflict zones, and UN legal obligations. Coliver addresses Art. XIX, the basis of most international freedom of expression arguments, and also prohibitions against propaganda for war, including incitement to violence. She discusses, in that context, the rights of journalists in conflict, and asserts that both the UN and member states have legal obligations to support those rights.

The crux of these issues turns on what Lowenberg describes as a structural problem – the DPKO’s job is to fulfill its mandate and leave. That mandate does not have an explicit development agenda, or obligations to build local media in a sustainable manner. Usually, when the UN leaves after a peacekeeping mission, it takes its kit along (Timor Leste is an exception to this). Each speaker is seeking to challenge this structural problem – that the funding only stays as long as the DPKO can justify the station within its peacekeeping objectives.

It turns out that incitement is also an issue. Coliver tackles whether “false” information could be considered incitement, and when. She expands this argument to urge caution when asserting incitement. The argument runs as follows:

Incitement is required to be prohibited by law, but what constitutes incitement and hatred? The government in power makes this decision. Law works when government is a neutral arbiter. This is in reality a rare situation. Sandra did a book on law and practice of hate speech, called “Striking a Balance: Hate Speech, Freedom of Expression, and Non-discrimination,” and found that in 20 countries, these laws were used to suppress minorities. This happens because prosecutor’s office decides what cases to bring, and also because weaker groups often use language as a weapon, as they have less power. Hence hate speech is often used to restrict political discourse. The consensus among free speech human rights advocates – on balance when violence is not happening, it’s better to use dialogue and responsible journalism, rather than blocking, censuring, or otherwise restricting volatile speech. Note Coliver’s written a lot on incitment – another book, “Broadcasting Genocide,” tackles Rwanda.

A further implication – what position would the UN take if Okapi’s independent journalism was considered to be “inciting” by the DRC’s newly minted government, which came to power after an election funded and managed by the UN. It’s already been the case that media outlets in the DRC reporting controversial subjects have been accused by the government of a lack of responsibility, for instance, the story of a woman murdered in Kinshasa who was reported to be Joseph Kabila’s estranged sister, and widely reported as such in the DRC. Okapi’s postion – they reported both angles.

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