Interview with Francis Rolt - Transcript

"Francis Rolt is a radio journalist and an expert in radio for conflict prevention. He worked as Director of Studio Ijambo, Burundi for Search for Common Ground. Francis Rolt has experience of working in over twenty countries in Africa, South and South East Asia, and elsewhere."


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How did you become an expert in radio in radio and conflict prevention?

Francis Rolt:

I was a journalist and I was producing a current affairs program for a number of years and I just got a bit fed up. I felt that I was doing very much with. I thought it’s important that people know these things and that they discuss current affairs and that they understand what’s going on but I feel there must be more you can do with radio in place where there is conflict in particular. Which is much of what is talked in current affairs programs. And then I heard about an organization called Search for Common Ground, an American non-profit organization. They were looking for someone to run a radio production studio in Burundi in 1999. So I applied for the job and I got it and I stayed in Burundi for two and half years. I learned on the job in a sense. Although I knew radio I didn’t really know about conflict-prevention in any way. So I learned from the people who where at the studio, I learned from Search for Common Ground, I learned form my colleagues and I learned from just being there and trying different things out and talking with a lot of people about the conflict particular in Burundi and about different ways to addressing it.

I: What can radio contribute to a peacebuilding process?

F.R.: That’s an enormous question! I think there are a number of things. If you just go through a list of things. One of the most important things radio can do, is to keep hope alive . I learned this in Burundi quite early on, that when nearly every one in the country seemed to be thinking that war was inevitable and it’s never going to end. Radio will keep hope alive among those few people, who still believe that it’s possible to reach a resolution. It’s very important that those people are encouraged, because only from them can the idea of a peaceful resolution grow and spread.

Radio can help to humanise the other, to insure that people on both sides recognize the humanity of the people they’re fighting and the people they are not fighting and just happen to be on the other side, the women and the children, the boys and babies. The problem with conflict is, that the other side gets dehumanised. Identity definitions get narrowed down to: “Those people over there, they are the enemy and they’re evil” and that’s it!

Because they are Hutu or Tutsi or Tamil or Singhalese or whatever it is, they are evil. There’s no more kind of complex understanding or willingness to understand, that people have many different sides and roles and not everyone fits into a simple definition. In fact very few people do.

I think thirdly, radio can hold the leaders to account. As everybody knows, the people who benefit from the conflicts are nearly always the leaders and very few other people benefit. Whether those leaders are warlords or politicians or businessmen or whether they are a combination of all three, like Charles Taylor, they are the people who benefit and they are the people who need to be questioned – even if not directly. The media gives the public, the ordinary persons the opportunity to question those leaders an to express them selves.

Forthly, radio can give an opportunity to ordinary people to say what they think, not only to question leaders or question the reason for the war or question the war at all, but to say what they think. One thing that sustain conflicts is the inability of ordinary people to express themselves in any kind of public way. Their feelings, their thoughts, their ideas are rarely listen to or rarely thought important in many countries. I remember in Burundi when we started a program, which was basically asking people on the street what they thought about the current issue, whatever the current issue was. It started of with them women that wouldn’t talk at all or very few of them would, and the men would say: “Why do you want to talk with me about this? I’m just an ordinary person.” And so they had to be persuaded to talk. Then the program became very, very popular and more and more people wanted to say what they thought. Because they recognized the importance of it.

That are just some of the basic things radio can do.

I: You said that radio can lead to questioning the leaders. Isn’t that a source for new conflicts?

F.R.: I think, it depends how it’s done and it depends how you define conflicts. It doesn’t have to be done directly. Questioning is often simply the fact of stating an opinion, because leaders in those kind of situations don’t except other people to have any opinions. Ordinary People are not allowed to have opinions. They are only supposed to do, what they’re told to do or what the group thinks what to do. Another thing that we did in Burundi was the Hero’s program, which was the first one that anyone had done and now many there are quite a lot of different organizations with similar programs. We started a program which was based on the idea that many Hutus had saved Tutsis during the conflict, and many Tutsis had saved Hutus. So we started this program and thinking we maybe be able to run 20 or 30 programs, we will find that many people at least. The program, as far as I know, ran for at least 5 years, every week. And that is in a sense questioning leaders. When the leaders say. “The enemies are Hutus” or “The enemies are Tutsis” then merely by allowing someone to say “I’m a Hutu and I saved these Tutsis” and you interview that person and you interview the people they saved and you talk about why they did it. Mostly they say “Because I’m a human being” and by that you questioning the whole ethos of the war and that’s tremendously powerful. That program had a massive impact or series of programs.

I: That was Studio Ijambo?

F.R.: Yes!

I: How do you start a radio like that? How do you decide to go to that ceratin country and implement a radio station?

F.R.: Well, I haven’t done that, but the organization Search for Common Ground, the way they do it is; They will visit a country, they’re doing an assessment trip. I took part in an assessment trip to Nepal, when I was working for Search as director of radio. There where three of us. We talked to people to find out if there was anyone ask doing, what the organization does with radio or media and other things. And whether there was interest among the donor community and the media and other NGOs, local NGOs in the country for collaboration on this kind of project. We spend two weeks there and we talked to hundreds of people. We realised that there was quite a lot of support for the idea and people were quite exited and no one was doing what Search for Common Ground does. So we opened an office there, based around a radio soap opera. That was the first project. From there a whole range of other radio, TV and other projects grew.

I: You work a lot with radio soap operas and radio drama. Why is the entertainment sector important? What can this segment provide for the peace process?

F.R.: I think it’s interesting. Many people if you say radio for peacebuilding, and immediately think news and current affairs. There a two things: One is that particular news journalists are very resistant to the idea of conflict sensitive journalism, which many of them regard as a kind of travesty and attack on there role, which is a misunderstanding. I had numerous discussions and arguments with news journalists about this.

It’s much harder to have an impact on a conflict through news and current affairs. By producing good, in that kind of traditional or BBC sense of good news, impartial news, you can have an impact on a conflict, because real news and current affairs are usually very lacking in a conflict and people don’t have access to real news and information. It’s very important.

Secondly, if you think about a radio station broadcasting ten to twelve hours a day, how much of this time is news and current affairs? It’s not that much! Well, there are 24 hours news channels, but those are international channels and if they spent 5 minutes a month on Burundi or whatever conflict it is, you’re lucky.

And there’s enormous amount of other program time, so why don’t use it? People in conflict don’t want to listen to news and current affairs all the time. They know what’s going on to some extend. They know their own experience. They want to be able to escape from that conflict. In refugee camps they living in terrible situations. They are faced with it in reality all the time. So they also want to be entertained and to get away in there minds from there immediate environment and the situation around them. Radio soap opera is one way to providing that kind of escape. That is one reason why it’s so popular and can be so successful in these terms.

I: How are those projects financed? Who are the donors of those radio projects?

F.R.: Most of the big donors nowadays support these kind of projects, whether it’s DFID (UK Department for International Development ), US AID, the EU or the UN.

The Scandinavians – Sweden, Danes, Norwegians – and the Dutch, used to be called the likeminded group, support those projects. The other, larger European donors, the German, French, Italian, Spanish, I don’t see a great deal in supporting these kind of projects and I’m not quite sure why that is.

I: Would you say, that there’s an awareness of the usefulness of radio and media in general in post conflict situations in the international community?

F.R.: I think there’s a growing awareness and growing understanding, although a lot of them still have a tendency to see radio as a PR tool. When you’re talking about peace building or conflict resolution they tend to think: “That’s about trying to say what a good job we’re doing in terms of peacekeeping or in terms of development projects.” Which is all to do with conflict resolution. I think, there’s a growing sense that radio actually can be used as a tool to bring peace, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

I: When you’re on the ground, how do you find the journalist? How do you assure certain journalistic standards?

F.R.: If you think about the amount of money that European and North American donors spend on journalism training. And were talking again about news journalism. You see, the problem is it always comes back to news somehow. This becomes the dominant theme on any discussion on peacekeeping, which it shouldn’t be. But it is an important one of course. There are hundreds of very well trained journalist in virtually any country you care to name. Who know what they should be doing, but they work in an environment or for an organization or for a government, which doesn’t allow them to do what they know they should be doing. Either because they don’t pay them enough, so they end up being corrupt – brown envelope journalism – or because the political line is laid down by a politicised boss or the station is owned by a commercial company which has an other kind of line or simply because they know that some issues are just not political acceptable. I be working in Sri Lanka a lot in the last year and one of the words which could not really be mentioned was “peace”. It wasn’t some thing that could be discussed, even in public between individuals they wouldn’t talk about peace. Because it was not political acceptable to talk about peace.

All what I’m saying is, if you providing a journalist with an environment in which they can do their job properly, then very largely they will do their job properly and they know what they should be doing. You may have to encourage them and you may have help them. Every journalist in the world needs some direction and a good environment in which to work. You provide that and they’ll do their job.

I: The environment would have been my next question. But let’s put in an other way. Let’s say there’s are country with journalistic freedom and there are some media which are working against peace. How hard is it then for radio projects that want to promote peace?

F.R.: It’s hard to say it in general, but I think it’s a very interesting question. One thing I would say is, that sometimes it’s better to work with them, because the people who are listing to that radio station are the people you want to reach – you need to reach in fact. I know that in the EU and many large organisations and donors have a very strict view on this, which doesn’t really take into account peacebuilding. They may say that they are working towards conflict, but then a radio station broadcasting in some part of the country that they been working with starts to saying things that they don’t like or they feel is verging towards hate radio, and it may be, so they simply cut of founding and refuse to work with that radio station any more. My view would be, that radio station is reaching people that we need to talk to in order to help change their minds and change their opinions. So let’s produce some programs, let’s discuss with the radio station, let’s try to get our programs up to that radio station.

I: How do you gain credibility for a radio station in countries that are coming

out of conflict? How do you secure that a radio station is widely accepted by all conflict parties?

F.R.: There are different ways. One thing is, it has to provide reliable information. Another thing is, you have to involve all ethnic, religious and social groups who are involved in the conflict in the radio station. So that it provides a kind of model of a society in which all these people can be seen demonstrably working together and to be achieving a positive result. In other words, the radio programs which are being broadcast and everyone can hear them and usually from the names and maybe the accents, people know that these people belong to different ethic groups. Sometimes that can be very hard, of course you will get conflicts within and you have to manage that. It has to be managed through a process. That has a tremendous impact in conflict, where people think: “I can’t possibly work with the other side.” Whoever they are. Then they see that these radio journalist and producers are able to work together in a positive way.

I: Is language a problem?

Language can be a big problem of course. I’ve been working in Sri Lanka for the last year and there the two main ethnic groups, the Tamils and the Singhalese, speak two entirely different languages and are often mutually incomprehensible. They don’t understand each other, they don’t speak each other languages. Quite a few Tamils speak Singhalese but very few Singhalese speak Tamil. So we created a large team, about twenty people, for the soap opera of writers, producers and senior producers. We had a big argument and discussion about language. They wanted to write to separate dramas, because they said: “Culturally and socially we are totally different. The Tamils need to write their drama and Singhalese need to write their drama. We’ll approach the same issues maybe but with different stories.” And I said: “You can’t do that. That is in a sense maintaining the division of the ethno-religious groups and giving a visible form it demonstrates in a way to the public in large, that it’s impossible that you work together or that ever the conflict in Sri Lanka can be resolved. So you need to work together.“

And they said: “Well, we don’t speak the same language. We don’t understand each other.”

And I said: “Well, you gotta work that out. You know, you got some people who speak both languages. You need to work through them and you need to agree on the storyline and you need to agree on the characters. You need to agree on the setting. You need to work together and show people that it can be done. It’s very important.”

I: When I talk to people and they ask me what my thesis is about, they ask me: ”Well, that’s very interesting, but why radio? Why not internet or other media?” So what is in your view, the advantage of radio over other media, like print media or television or the internet?

F.R.: It depends where you’re working of course. Certainly in Africa radio is still by far the most important electronic form of communication. The press is read in almost every country in Africa by a tiny elite population in the capital cities. In a place like Liberia, where I was last year for a short time, the total print run of dozens of so called newspapers and magazines each week is probably around 10.000. That’s nothing! I’m not saying you can ignore the newspapers, because they have an influence on that elite group and that’s important to remember. But if you want to reach the majority of people in Africa, then you’ll have to go through the radio. In other places, like Sri Lanka for instance, TV is more popular then radio. But another advantage of radio is, that is a hundreds of the cost and if you produce a good product, then people will listen to it.


Last Updated (Thursday, 23 September 2010 16:59)