Media outlets in the Central African Republic are caught between the conflicts between religious rebel forces in the Central African Republic.
When the employees of a Christian radio station that was partnered with an American church entered their newsroom last April, there was nothing left. The station’s equipment was destroyed and stolen by looters, and the damage was valued at nearly $300,000. The station has yet to return to the airwaves.
Journalism in the Central Africa Republic has suffered greatly as the country has been shaken by sectarian violence. Since fighting between Muslim Seleka rebels and Christian anti-balaka militias began, many news outlets have been forced to cease operations. Media organizations across the country have been looted and in some cases completely destroyed, according to the Danish non-profit International Media Support. According to IMS, safety is a constant concern: Journalists are frequently threatened and their mobility has been greatly hampered.
Even before fighting began in November 2012, press freedom in CAR was not fully guaranteed. Reporters Without Borders described the state of press freedom in previous years as a situation with “noticeable problems”. Nevertheless, the organization says the media landscape had gradually normalized and stabilized under the government of former president Francois Bozizé.
In 2005, under Bozizé’s administration, the country passed a law that decriminalized media offences and established a media regulator. Despite some progressive steps, economic instability, lack of professional equipment and training, and government intimidation threatened independent media.
Radio is the most popular source of news for the people of the CAR, an unsurprising fact given that 44 percent of the population is illiterate and televisions are considered a luxury good. In addition, CAR, like many other African countries, has a culture rooted in oral tradition. The relatively cheap cost of radios, which are priced as low as $1.20, coupled with international support for radio stations has helped make the medium the country’s most important.
Before the crisis there were 29 functioning community radio stations, but following the clashes in March 2013, only six stations remain, all in the capital Bangui, according to Columbia Journalism Review. Both Christian and Muslim fighters have threatened news outlets, accusing them of taking sides. Clea Kahn-Sriber, head of the Africa desk of Reporters Without Borders told Columbia Journalism Review: “Whatever they report on, the group will feel that they’re being partisan and that they’re only telling part of the truth.” Some journalists told the watchdog organization they feel that the threats to media personnel are growing by the day.
Because strong local journalism is non-existent, news from international outlets is influential in CAR. This can be problematic, because many foreign correspondents make only brief reporting trips to the country, according to a Columbia Journalism Review report. Foreign reporters rarely venture far from the capital and can’t provide local, breaking news needed by the population, the magazine said.
People outside of Bangui have little chance of obtaining reliable information, which often puts them at greater risk: “People live in fear and are victims of rumors and misinformation,” said Jacobo Quintanilla, Internews Director of Humanitarian Communication Programs. “We need to help break this spiral of fear and give people a voice. We must provide people with reliable information they can trust about what is and what is not happening and help them make informed decisions.”
Along with Freedom House and the Association of Journalists for Human Rights, Internews produces daily news bulletins in the CAR and seeks to provide radio devices to citizens and educate local journalists.
One example of the news gap was in coverage of the killing of more than 70 anti-balaka men and boys near Guen in southwestern CAR. The attacks took place Feb. 1 and Feb. 5, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch. Yet the Associated Press first reported on the attacks on Feb. 24, more than two weeks after they occurred.
For journalism educators, the main challenge remains to try and change the perception of the public with regards to local journalists. One media development trainer working in the CAR, who asked to remain anonymous because he wasn’t authorized to speak for his organization, told the Global Journalist that he was pleased with the success of the mentoring and training programs in the CAR, but admitted that the work was challenging. “Only when journalists have been able to re-conquer the middle ground and be accepted by everyone as impartial actors will we really be able to move forward,” he said. “Especially in dangerous places such as here, having a serious journalist that takes his job seriously can already save lives through accurate information.”