From supporting forthcoming elections in South Sudan, to getting war-weary people to buy into peace processes; to ensuring high school girls in Afghanistan can keep learning even after they have been banned from classrooms: radio continues to be relevant in the digital era.
World Radio Day, observed annually on 13 February, celebrates the power of the medium. The theme this year is ‘Radio and Peace’, highlighting its role in conflict prevention and peacebuilding.
“Since it was developed about a century ago, radio has proven to be an exceptional means of communication, debate and exchange – indeed, it is one of the most accessible and widespread types of media,” said Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
In her message for the Day, she urged everyone “not only to celebrate radio’s potential, but also, and especially, to make greater use of radio as a unique instrument of peace.”
Radio and UN Peacekeeping
For Francesca Mold, Chief of Strategic Communications in the UN’s Department of Peace Operations (DPO), this year’s theme could not be more relevant.
DPO recently kicked off a year-long campaign to commemorate the 75th anniversary of UN Peacekeeping.
“Operating as part of UN peacekeeping missions, we operate radio networks which are vital to reaching large-scale and diverse communities, particularly in places where internet penetration is poor and the population is very mobile due to conflict and displacement,” said Ms. Mold.
UN Peacekeeping was established in 1948 and since then, 71 missions have been deployed to post-conflict countries around the world. As these operations have to explain their mandates to local populations, communication is essential.
‘Best tool’ for communicating
Radio officially became part of peacekeeping in 1989 under the UN Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) in Namibia, a political mission established to ensure the holding of free and fair elections there.
UNTAG created content on issues such as voter registration, which was given to local broadcasters for dissemination. The first significant peacekeeping radio station arrived a few years later, with the UN’s Mission in Cambodia.
“Perhaps the best tool in our toolbox has been UN Peacekeeping radio stations,” said Douglas Coffman from the Peace and Security Section of the UN’s Department of Global Communications (DGC), which is also home to UN News.
Speaking to the people
Mr. Coffman served in the Balkans in the late 1990s, in the wake of the series of wars that erupted following the breakup of Yugoslavia.
“Radio is important because the UN can speak to the local population without going through the filter of biased media,” he said. “These are media that have been part of the problem in the conflict. They don’t necessarily want to help us get our messages out. So, having the ability to speak directly and in real time to the communities we’re working for, is essential.”
Radio has played a pivotal role in the world’s youngest nation, South Sudan, which has suffered periods of brutal fighting and displacement since gaining independence in 2011.
A partner for peace
Radio Miraya at the UN Mission in the country, UNMISS, provides a platform for both establishing and consolidating peace. In fact, it is “the partner for peace for the Government and the people of South Sudan,” according to Ben Malor, UNMISS Chief of Communications and Public Information.
Some of the station’s programmes include a weekday Breakfast Show, consisting of news reports and interviews with Government ministers, civil society representatives and other key figures.
Another show called ‘Roundtable’, which airs on Saturdays, brings together ministers, senior officials and influencers for a political discussion on sometimes thorny issues, such as inter-communal violence and cattle raiding.
Other programmes target young people, and there is also a dedicated phone line for women who want to call into the station – a way to give voice to women in a society where they need to be heard.
Reinforcing national unity
“Our purpose, whatever radio is doing, whether we are online and we are on air, and people are calling in, is to reinforce the togetherness of the people across political divides, across religious divides, across ethnic divides, across gender divides, then across age divides,” said Mr. Malor.
Radio is still the primary medium for conveying information to South Sudan’s 11 million people, and Radio Miraya is in a constant state of readjustment and self-evaluation to better support UNMISS in delivering on its mandate.
Recently, the Government asked for the UN’s support for the electoral process that will culminate with a vote in December 2024.
“Radio Miraya is going to be playing its part as best as possible, as much as we get the cooperation of the Government of South Sudan, so that we will do everything to support the leadership for the success of this process,” said Mr. Malor. “So, there is constant examination, constant restructuring, constant improvement.”
Adaptability and reach
Radio’s accessibility and widespread reach have made it a critical tool for UNESCO, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, when it was necessary to reach students who were out of school.
The UN agency established a system to teach children over the airwaves, benefiting scores of learners in many countries, including in sub-Saharan Africa where less than a quarter of people have internet access.
“Radio is thus very often the medium of last resort. We are seeing this again in Afghanistan, where girls and women have been suddenly and unfairly denied their right to learn, study and teach,” said Ms. Azoulay.
UNESCO has strongly condemned the bans and has launched a programme with the European Union to support media outlets in Afghanistan. The objective is to help circulate educational material, and information on health and safety, to reach at least six million people directly.
Source: United Nations