Interview with Former Director of Radio Okapi David Smith

UNESCO is pleased to make the audio and text of this interview available copy-right free for the celebration of World Radio Day 2019. Radio stations are especially encouraged to broadcast the interview, either in its totality or by exacting the answers and announcing the questions themselves.

UNESCO had the pleasure to talk to David Smith, a founding director of Okapi Consulting and Okapi Net, working in the domain of communications in conflict zones and fragile states. Current projects include the development of a regional radio network in the Lake Chad Basin, targeting areas affected by Boko Haram. Radio Ndarason Internationale, broadcasting in Kanuri, Kanembu, Buduma and French, has studios in N’Djamena and Maiduguri. David is the founder of Radio Okapi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and as Radio MINURCA, the precursor to Radio Ndeke Luka in the Central African Republic, as well as Bar Kulan in Somalia.

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Q. Thank you David for being with us today to talk about World Radio Day 2019. You worked as the Director for Radio Okapi, the radio station for the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Could you tell us a little bit about the work of Radio Okapi in helping put an end to the conflict there?

Well, when I’m asked this question, I usually like to start with what the then Special Representative of the Secretary General Amos Namanga Ngongi said at the time. He was speaking in front of the Security Council, briefing them on the state of MONUC, and this was in early 2002. And he described Radio Okapi as having electronically dismantled the front line in what many had called Africa’s first world war. What Radio Okapi did is allow the people in a country that was divided in three — there was an area around Kinshasa under control of the Kabila government and the people supporting him, then there was the far east which was under the control of Rwandan-backed rebels, and then parts of the center and north of the country were under the control at the time of Ugandan-backed rebels. It made it almost impossible for all Congolese to talk to each other. In those days, cellphone networks did not communicate with each other across the front lines. And the then state broadcaster of the RGNC was in the hands of the various groups controlling the various parts of the country. So, in effect, Congolese were given a voice across the country by Radio Okapi for the first time since the war had started.

Q. And what was the specific advantage of using radio to encourage tolerance between the opposing groups?

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the largest countries on the continent. It’s almost a sub-continent the size of Western Europe. Outside the urban areas, there is very little infrastructure to try to get people to talk to each other, to try to get the belligerents to talk to each other and all those involved in the conflict. The only way of reaching everybody was through radio. Fortunately, most people in that part of the world have at least access to radio and most people in that part of the world are accustomed to listening to short-wave radio. Right from the beginning, Radio Okapi broadcast on short wave throughout the country and as the radio network developed with the massive support of the UN peacekeeping mission we were able to set out FM transmitters in most of the urban areas. So, very simply, because it was the only way of reaching most people in the country. It allowed the Congolese to actually discuss the issues that were tearing them apart for many years.

Q. From the various programs that were broadcast from Radio Okapi, which were the most successful programs in your opinion and why?

Well, there are three that come to mind. The day that Radio Okapi began broadcasting it was the 5th of February 2002. The radio got off with a bang launching stations in the studios and transmitters in Kinshasa, Goma and the far east in North Kivu and in Kisangani in the center of the country and the first programs to go on the air were live broadcasts from what was the inter-Congolese dialogue held in South Africa at Sun City where the various parties of the conflict got together and eventually a government of national unity came out of that. Because Radio Okapi was the only radio station broadcasting that live, it assured large listenership from the beginning. Obviously, the inter-Congolese dialogue did not last forever, but from that program, a new program which continues to be broadcast to this very day went on the air called Dialogue entre Congolais, or Dialogue between Congolese. That’s been the anchor flagship program of Radio Okapi for the past 15 years that it’s been on the air. Every day, a major newsmaker or major mover and shaker or somebody who has knowledge of the major news stories of the day is a guest either in studio or on the telephone. And that program has the highest listenership of any program broadcast on Radio Okapi. Second and third, in no particular order, I would say would be a program in the Kinyarwanda language, which is only broadcast in the far east of the country. When that program first went on the air in the Kinyarwanda language, you might imagine that many Congolese were not very happy to hear it because at the time the Kinyarwanda language was perceived as the language of the oppressor, the armies that had been attacking the eastern part of the country. The program was targeted at Kinyarwanda speaking people who were living in the Congo, who in many cases since the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. And it was part of the DDR, the demobilization program of MONUC to get people from various rebel groups to lay down their arms and be reinserted into civil society, in this case the Kinyarwandans were asked to lay down their arms and be resettled in Rwanda. Shortly after the program went on the air, the original hostilities from the Congolese disappeared when they understood that this was a program about peace, a program to try to get people to lay down their arms and rejoin civil society. That program also remains on the air until this day.

And the third program that I want to mention is the daily news bulletin. Radio Okapi gained its very excellent reputation I’m pleased to say, mainly by having a network of correspondents throughout the country that put together news bulletins that nobody else was able to do because nobody has a network of correspondents across all the areas of the DRC as MONUC and Radio Okapi had. And I’ll stop there — those were the three anchor programs.

Q. In your time working at Radio Okapi, how did the station work to address the concerns of the indigenous groups of the DRC?

I think the most important way of addressing their concerns was speaking to people and listening to them in their own language. One of the original plans for Radio Okapi right from the start was to make sure that it broadcast in all of the national languages of the DRC. And almost from day one, at the beginning, the station broadcast in French, Lingala, Tshiluba and Kiswahili. A few days later, the other national language, Kikongo, was added. In doing this, the feedback from Congolese across the country was that this radio station was truly the voice of the Congolese. And, by broadcasting in those languages it gave people in each of these specifi geographic regions of the country the chance to talk about any ethnic difficulty they were having in their own part of the country. You may recall, and it continues to this very day, in the northeastern Ituri region there have been ongoing conflicts between two ethnic groups called the Lendu and the Hema people. And the programs broadcast on Radio Okapi allowed them to speak to each other in languages that they understood. It did not always mean that peace was following right away, but at least it gave them an opportunity to speak and help defeat the rumour mill.

Q. This year’s World Radio Day celebrates the theme of “Dialogue, Tolerance and Peace”. What is your World Radio Day message?

I think that it’s a simple one. The simple thing is that if you give people the opportunity to speak, and radio is the best microphone for doing this in many parts of the world, especially here in Africa. The first thing that radio does by encouraging dialogue is kill the rumour mill. So much violence is the result of rumour circulating, and if there is no way to dispel that rumour, then it’s a fake news story and fake news often leads to violence is unjustified — not that any violence is justified — but by having radio gives people a voice and letting all those people speak, it’s killing the rumour mill and allowing for discussion. And I think that discussion is the first and most important path towards ending violence and creating stability. And without stability, there can’t be progress and so, that’s my message. Get people talking. Use appropriate technology, and appropriate technology in much of the world, especially in Africa, is using radio.

Radio is king.


Thank you very much, David!


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