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Radio's Critical Role in War-Torn Regions: Interactive Radio for Justice's Work to Empower Citizens in Central Africa

The recent earthquakes in Chile and Haiti are a strong reminder about the importance of radio as a communications tool, especially in times of disaster. Haitian radio stations have served to help with rescue efforts and shortwave radio operators in Chile were also instrumental in transmitting tsunami updates and emergency communications.

Along these lines, the organization Interactive Radio for Justice (IRfJ) has been creating radio programs in war-torn regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic in order to help provide information to citizens about their basic human rights. Utilizing local community and Catholic radio stations as their outlets, representatives from Interactive Radio for Justice have created several series of “interactive” radio programs in which listeners can hear citizens asking pressing questions about their legal rights, which are then answered by government officials over the air.

In parts of the world where television, the Internet, and print media are not commonplace, but radios are in nearly every home; radio broadcasts can become a vital educational tool.

Recently I interviewed Wanda Hall, Founder and Director of Interactive Radio for Justice, in order to hear from her the reasons why radio is such a critical tool in her work.

The project began in 2005 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with one of the main goals being to “create interactive conversation” between citizens and legal officials. The focus have been on regions where The International Criminal Court has been investigating serious crimes such as genocide and war crimes and the radio programs attempt to begin a dialog in order to educate communities about the justice system.

Luckily for IRFJ, the DRC had an established culture of community radio that could be tapped into for the project. In 2008 they also began work in the Central African Republic where “local radio is not as obvious a tool” according to Wanda. She said that because of this, they have teamed up with religious radio stations affiliated with the Catholic church.

In addition to producing programming, IRFJ also works to provide radios to members of the local communities in order to set up “listening groups.” That way, even if residents don’t have access to a radio, they can go to someone’s home to hear the programming. Group leaders are given radios and they establish a specific time each week that they will open their home to their neighbors in order to listen to IRfJ programming. Wanda told me that in these communities the cost of a radio may be equivalent to a month’s salary, so it’s not unreasonable to expect that it’s a luxury item for many people.

For residents in these regions with low rates of literacy and a strong oral tradition, radios provide the main source for news. Additionally, Wanda mentioned to me that newspapers aren’t as popular and printing presses “ground to a halt” during wartime. She added that it’s a “musical society…and so radio is effective…word of mouth is effective as well.” She pointed out that even though there are Internet cafes, “you simply don’t have electricity in these places” and “there’s not enough bandwidth to surf the Internet.”

In the U.S. it’s easy to take for granted the easy access that we have to newspapers, the Internet, and television for news and information. Wanda reminds us that in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the “educational system is destroyed” and there are literally grenade holes in the walls of the schools. She said that people there wonder who is controlling the media, so she is trying to get voices from the community on the air, asking the pointed questions.

In addition to the radio programs that IRfJ is producing, they also did a project called Music for Justice in which the youth of Ituri were encouraged to write and create songs focused on themes of justice and peace. CDs of the music have been distributed to radio stations in the region and the songs are also played during IRfJ programming. The music was recorded in a number of languages and spans a range of genres including pop, rap, and traditional Congolese music.  Tracks can also be heard and downloaded from the IRFJ website.

The IRFJ radio programs (which can be heard on their website) tackle a range of topics, covering listener questions about laws, women’s rights, victimization, and “Rights and Legal Recourse on the Road.” Many of the questions are disturbing in that the abuses that these citizens have suffered are horrific, such as witnessing rapes and murders of family members during wartime. Even though the pain of these crimes cannot be erased, it’s reassuring that these radio programs are both giving a voice to victims and providing resources and education about their rights so that some form of justice may be served.

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