For almost two decades now, UN peacekeeping missions have routinely set up radio stations that by default, not design, became the countries' dominant national broadcasters. And then, when the missions ended, the stations would close.
The management, impact and ultimate fate of these UN stations - a dozen to date, five of which remain in operation today - has largely escaped the notice of international policymakers, including within the UN itself. Even among media development specialists, the stations have attracted little interest or analysis.
Yet from Cambodia to Liberia, these UN stations helped end violent conflict and make peaceful political transition possible. They provided citizens with trusted local news programs and nonpartisan public affairs forums, often for the first time.
The UN radio stations were also often the first to reach all corners of these war-ravaged countries. In the elections overseen by the UN after peacekeeping interventions, these stations became the main if not only national source of accurate voter information and balanced campaign coverage.
Today, in two of the most volatile and strategically challenging nations in Africa – Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo - these DPKO-backed radio services are the only nonpartisan news sources with broad daily national reach. The UN will soon start providing a similar service throughout Somalia, in support of the UN-backed African Union mission there.
The UN stations in Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire, while operating in more open media environments, remain essential national sources of local news, without which the coming elections scheduled in both countries could not be considered free or fair.
Making a virtue of necessity, these UN stations have relied on national announcers and producers and reporters, giving local broadcast journalists invaluable on-the-job training and public exposure. By almost any measure – political impact, infrastructural improvement, giving voice to dissent and minorities, raising local journalism standards – the peacekeeping radio stations contributed more to media development in these post-conflict countries than any other concurrent media aid programs, including the many journalism-targeted projects of UNESCO and UNDP.
Those achievements have proved disappointingly ephemeral, however, due to a lack of long-term UN planning and a long-term UN commitment to media development as an integral part of democratization. There has been no clear UN policy differentiation between the UN's legitimate public diplomacy mandate in conflict and post-conflict zones, and the quite different responsibilities the UN assumes when it provides local news and public affairs programming for national audiences. And the stations' budgets are such a minuscule fraction of the current $8 billion annual cost of UN peacekeeping – a subset of the one percent of peacekeeping appropriations that are devoted to 'communications' – that they rarely attract the attention of peacekeeping overseers at the Security Council and UN senior management. When the stations close, few at headquarters take notice.
Yet continuing failure to create or support viable local successors to these UN broadcast services will put at risk hard-won gains of current peacekeeping missions, and heighten chances that these 'post-conflict' countries will succumb anew to internal and regional strife. Yet if approached differently – as part of the UN’s nation-building responsibilities in post-conflict countries – these stations could contribute greatly to the viable exit strategies for peacekeeping missions that the Security Council is now insistently if belatedly demanding.
Getting in is the easy part, in most cases. Local permission to run these stations have been typically granted under the "status of forces agreements" governing UN deployment in the country - agreements which customarily give the UN broad and unique license to conduct communications operations on a national scale as part of the peacekeeping mission. So when the "SOFA" and Security Council mandate for the mission expires, so does the UN's right to run its own local radio station.
The UN's radio exit strategy was often just to pull the plug – literally - and put the broadcasting equipment back into containers for the next mission. In Cambodia the UN station closed weeks after the 1993 elections, leaving a media vacuum that has not been filled to this day. In East Timor in 2002, the UN station hardware was handed over to the new government for a state broadcast service, which soon came under direct partisan control.
A repetition of either scenario today would undermine international nation-building efforts in Africa, where seven UN peacekeeping operations now account for two-thirds of all peacekeeping spending and personnel worldwide.
A media map of post-conflict Africa today would highlight the startling yet overlooked dominance of these UN radio operations. Start with the contiguous West African countries – Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone - that have been an interlocked focus of international peacekeeping for the past ten years. The most extensive news services in all three, in terms of listenership, geographical reach and round-the-clock programming, are still provided by UN-operated radio stations started on a temporary basis as part of each respective peacekeeping mission.
Move southeast to the giant of central Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the eight-year-old UN-maintained Radio Okapi has become the one universal and indispensable news service for a country with almost 70 million people, volatile borders with nine countries, and the largest peacekeeping mission in UN history.
The recent murders of two Okapi journalists - the first such deliberate killings of UN media professionals in UN history - have brutally highlighted the importance and professional independence of the station, without which few Congolese would get accurate and apolitical news about their country. Okapi is completely dependent on the UN mission (MONUC), which has been extended to May 2010 but faces criticism internationally for alleged complicity in human rights abuses by government forces, and within the DRC for confronting the government on human rights and corruption issues. The government is unlikely to approve long-term continuation of Okapi under either UN or local auspices unless the UN bankrolls and insists upon it.
To the northeast, in Sudan, Africa's largest and most politically vexing country, the UN's Radio Miraya provides a uniquely nonpartisan service to audiences in the formerly warring North and South, though with far more liberty in the latter. Five years ago the UN secured permission from Sudan to run a national radio operation in its role as overseer of the North-South peace accord, but the government has refused to provide the promised AM or FM frequencies in Khartoum, Darfur or anywhere else in its domain outside the South.
Pressing Sudan to meet this legal obligation has not been a Security Council priority. Yet in the continued absence of independent national media, Radio Miraya will be essential for the credibility of the Sudanese presidential contest this spring and the scheduled referendum on North-South unification in 2011 – elections that are cornerstones of UN strategy in the country.
And Somalia, the prototype of the failed state, with no viable independent national media, will soon be added to this UN radio map as well.
Sierra Leone, the furthest advanced toward a UN radio exit plan, now has a "peacebuilding" or post-peacekeeping mission, appropriately for a country that has held two consecutive post-conflict elections resulting in peaceful transfers of power. The UN Radio station has stayed on the air due to a unique Security Council mandate for the UN to promote "independent public broadcasting" in the country. In December, Sierra Leone's parliament unanimously passed a bill - drafted with UN support - to convert the pro-government state broadcaster into a public corporation with an autonomous board and a commitment to editorial independence. The UN Radio station will soon cease operations and bequeath its studios and transmitters to the new Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation, which will also receive start-up aid from the UN Peacebuilding Fund.
The Sierra Leone case offers one replicable model for UN radio transitions to local control, and merits closer attention at UN headquarters. The neighboring Ivory Coast and Liberia peacekeeping missions are due to wind down soon; there are still no firm plans to either continue their stations or transform them into national broadcasters, however. In both countries state radio remains firmly under control of the executive, with a public information rather than public-service ethos, while several private stations provide independent news, primarily in the capitals.
The UN radio services, though run quite professionally and effectively, were created with little strategic thinking about the local media landscape, and without long-term planning for local alternatives upon their eventual disappearance.
This is not a criticism of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, which was never asked nor equipped to be in the media development business. It is, however, a criticism of UN peacekeeping planning.
Within the UN, and that begins within the Security Council, basic policy questions about these stations are still to be asked: Should the UN even be running national radio stations in sovereign countries? If so, why, for how long, and under what terms? Are these services simply on-site full-time extensions of the UN’s public information operations, serving UN communications needs as defined by the UN mission, or do they have an obligation to provide general news and information to the local populace, in accord with UN guidelines for public-service broadcasting and independent media generally? What does the record tell us about best practices or even routine practices at these stations? How has UN radio affected local media?
The radio operations may have escaped scrutiny by UN policymakers and paymasters, but peacekeeping chiefs on the ground have been acutely aware of the stations' importance to their missions. Listener surveys confirmed their popularity and credibility with national audiences, local journalists lauded their contributions to national media standards, and minority voices had forums for views that might otherwise not have been heard.
It would be not just short-sighted but reckless to let this investment go to waste, and deprive citizens in these post-peacekeeping countries of reliable nonpartisan news and information services to which they have become accustomed and now rightfully expect. Press freedom and media professionalism face acute challenges in all these countries. International support to either continue these radio stations in some national form, or to aid or create comparable local broadcast news services, would be a wise investment in preventive medicine.
Here, then, are ten recommendations to help local UN radio services fulfill the UN's ideals, and bequeath lasting contributions to free media in the countries that peacekeepers are sent to stabilize and democratize:
- The Security Council should consistently require legal and technical facilities for UN-backed broadcasting and related digital communications as an integral component of peacekeeping missions - and it should back up those mandates with resources, clear policy guidance, and insistence on local compliance.
- The UN should draw a bright operational line between its public information apparatus and the management of local broadcasters providing local news programs to local audiences.
- The creation of a national broadcast service should be approached as part of the UN's institution-building responsibilities in post-conflict countries, much as the UN does with its support for independent election-management authorities, human rights commissions, and other autonomous democratic bodies.
- All UN-backed local broadcasting should abide by the norms for independent media promulgated and championed by UNESCO and relevant regional institutions (the African Union, the Organization of American States, the European Commission, etc.).
- Before setting up its own radio stations, the UN should first consider partnerships with credible and capable local media outlets, such as nonpartisan public broadcasters or community radio networks, if such institutions exist.
- UN radio partnerships with nongovernmental media organizations should be pursued systematically and transparently, including through open project bidding
- The UN departments of Peacekeeping Operations and Public Information should develop and deploy an on-call roster of experienced media managers and trainers, including through "One UN" collaboration with UNESCO (which has a mandate and expertise in media work but lacks field resources) and UNDP (which has large field operations and a complementary media development mandate).
- UN peacekeeping media strategies should be shaped through dialogue and data-sharing with local media groups and bilaterally and privately funded media projects in countries with or targeted for peacekeeping missions.
- Current peacekeeping radio services should begin planning now for their eventual closure, and aid or help build local broadcasters that could provide similarly professional and nonpartisan programming.
- Wherever possible, UN missions should support the development of local public-service broadcasters with editorial autonomy and a commitment to professional newsgathering and nonpartisanship, as an integral part of the UN mandate to aid national transitions to representative and responsive democratic governance.
A full examination of the past and future of UN peacekeeping radio operations can be found at the website of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Center for International Media Assistance.