Prof. Vinod Pavarala, the UNESCO Chair on Community Media, visited Sierra Leone and Cameroon last year on the invitation of Alexander Vojvoda and Sebastian Lasinger, staffers of Bread for the World, a development and relief agency of Protestant Churches in Germany, that addresses issues of poverty, food security, democracy and social justice to advocate for community media and support network formation in the region. In the first part of Prof. Pavarala’s diary (CR News, January-March 2018), we learnt about community media activity in Sierra Leone and the formation of a national network of CR stations. In this part, we pick up from his last day in Sierra Leone and go onward to Cameroon. 

                                                                  A staff member at work, CBS Radio, Buea

November 25, 2017

My last full day in Freetown, Sierra Leone. I have been here for almost a week, interacting with community media activists, government officials, and lending my support for formation of the Sierra Leone Community Media Network. Aminata Massaquoi, the manager of Culture Radio and Emmanuel, a sports broadcaster at the station picked me up in the morning for a half day exploration of the history and culture of Sierra Leone.

The somewhat grandiosely named National Museum consisted of barely two rooms, with a few artifacts put together haphazardly.  Close to the museum was the Peace and Culture Monument set up by the army after the civil war ended to foster a sense of unity and pride among Sierra Leonians. One of the panels displayed the story of the Amistad Revolt of the 19th century that was made into a movie by Steven Spielberg. I spent some time at the iconic Cotton Tree which gained importance in the late 18th century when a group of former African American slaves who had gained their freedom by fighting on the side of the British in the American War of Independence, settled the site of modern Freetown. According to legend, they landed on shoreline and walked up to a giant tree and held a thanksgiving service. This is the site of modern-day political rallies and protests.

So, it’s goodbye Sierra Leone! On to Cameroon tomorrow.

November 26, 2017

In the afternoon, the customary boat ride got us – Sebastian Lasinger and Mohammad Massaquoi, a popular journalist in Sierra Leone — to the Lungi airport of Freetown. It took all day, with stopovers and flight changes in Abidjan (Cote d’Ivoire), Monrovia (Liberia), and Accra (Ghana), to arrive in Douala, Cameroon around midnight.  By the time we checked into the Foyer du Marin, the German Mission, whose charms as a guest house I was to discover only in the morning, it was almost 2 am!

November 27, 2017

Open Forum, Douala, Cameroon

My first public event in Douala was an Open Forum with civil society organizations and media representatives. I was asked to speak on the role and relevance of community media and about the benefits of networking.  On the dais with me were Rev. Geraldine, the President of CCMN and Station Manager of CBS Radio Buea, and Rev. Mkoko Mbue Thomas, National Communication Secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon.  Rev. Thomas was rather eloquent in his welcome remarks addressed to me, saying that I was visiting at a time when the nation was not at its best. He minced no words when he admitted that the country was going through trying times, especially so for community media. He appreciated my reaching out to ‘a troubled nation’.   The CCMN, he said, was trying to strengthen the community and community radio, and through those efforts, ‘bring healing to a broken nation’.

Politically, Cameroon is in bad shape, with Boko Haram threatening the country in the extreme north and the Anglophone part agitating for secession.  The government has been ruthless on the secession demand, with police and paramilitary violence and large-scale arrests.  Freedom of speech and expression seemed to have become a liability in the process. With political interference, repressive measures by the state, and bribery and corruption, the state of the media left much to be desired.  Part of the task in Cameroon is media development in general, with media activists emphasizing training of journalists in media ethics and peace journalism, safety of journalists, and creation of an enabling environment for a free and independent media as priorities.   It is in this climate that there could well be about 100 community radio stations in the country, none of which have licenses, but operate with some kind of government permission. The President of CCMN mentioned about 21 stations currently being members of the network.

Rev. Gustav Ebai, during the interactive session, said that about 40% of the country did not have electricity, proper road infrastructure, or Internet connectivity.  In that kind of situation, the role of radio cannot be underestimated.  One participant tried to emphasise the need to focus on rural areas of Cameroon which are often neglected in media development. Many things seem to be guaranteed in the Cameroonian Constitution, but democratic rights are constantly undermined.

November 28-29, 2017

The CCMN organized a practitioner workshop on community-based and conflict sensitive media production. Participants from Sierra Leone, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) enthusiastically discussed interesting issues such as the definition of community radio, its purpose, relationship with civil society, financial sustainability, and its role in promoting peace in conflict-ridden societies.

Sebastian and Alexander then unveiled their plans for setting up a Community Media Archive for West and Central Africa to facilitate content exchange on complex sub-regional issues, enable common efforts for policy advocacy, and offer access to training and materials.

Sebastian Lasinger and Alexander Vojvoda unveiling the Archive

Country representatives presented on the media scene in their respective countries. Massaquoi explained the situation in Sierra Leone against the background of civil conflict, Ebola, and the peace process. Forcible acquisition of agricultural land for industry and mining has become a major threat to the survival of people, and some radio stations like Culture Radio collaborate with FAO and other agencies to bring greater awareness and mobilize people. Kum Bim Leonard, who represented CCMN, pointed out that peace journalism was the main identity of the Cameroonian network.

Judith Raupp, also of Bread for the World, works in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and came with two people from community radios there.  Despite the oft-mentioned number of 400 CR stations in the DRC, there is no legal recognition for CR and has a great deal of diversity in ownership models. In what is Africa’s second largest country, ongoing conflicts have often tended to threaten civil rights and freedom of the press. However, the country saw its first CR station as early as 1993, with hundreds more joining the fray over the years. There is a diversity of content in the CR stations, with many of them broadcasting even political content. About a fraction of these stations have formed themselves into a network called CORACON to bring pressure on the government to formulate more enabling policies.

Judith Raupp of Bread for the World in the DRC speaking on ethical journalism

Judith had a problem with community radios playing an advocacy role. She wanted a more professional, independent and balanced role, where they don’t take sides.  In a country that’s deeply divided along ethnic/tribal identities, an advocacy role may be reduced to supporting the cause of one’s own tribe and provoke hatred against the other. While community radios can contribute to dialogue for non-violent resolution of conflicts, ‘hate radio’ by partisan broadcasters can as easily encourage people to kill opposing ethnic groups. In a deeply dysfunctional polity and a damaged social fabric, it may be inadequate to speak only in the sense of the classic community media discourse of amplifying ‘marginalized voices’ because there are many layers of marginalization and perceptions of marginality.

The discussion that followed raised some critical questions. In a fragile and insecure environment, can media (even community media) afford to look like they are anything but ‘neutral’? How then can community media claim to be ‘people’s voices’ if they are reduced to merely being neutral transmitters of information? Should community radios be doing hard-core journalism at all? Other prominent issues that came up in the workshop included: need for synergy between community media organisations and civil society organizations; deepening relationships between national networks of Western and Central Africa; dealing with repression and strategies of co-optation; lobbying for appropriate legal/policy environment; social and financial sustainability; codes of practice/codes of conduct; training for conflict-sensitive journalism; and social media literacy.

Later, before dinner, I had an interesting chat with a young man from the DRC, Reagan Mwanaweka, who shared his experience of being a part of an exciting ‘youth for peace’ initiative undertaken jointly by young people in DRC and Rwanda, two countries that have been in mortal combat for years. They co-produced an inspiring and vibrant music video called Simama (Stand Up/Rise Up) Africa that suggests that the way forward for peace in the region lies with the young people of the two countries. Watch the video here:

                                                                Reagan Mwanaweka speaking on community media in Rwanda

November 30, 2017

On the last day, the participants resolved to form the West and Central African Community Media Network and passed the Douala Declaration to that effect. It was quite exhilarating to be a witness to community media activists from different countries in the region expressing their solidarity and making common cause for forging a more democratic media landscape.

In the evening, we went on a walking tour of the Bonanjo Quarter of Douala, which is the administrative unit of the city, housing important government buildings, and historic German and French structures and memorials that recall the colonial period in the city.  The tour was conducted by a young woman guide from Doual’art, a center of contemporary art and an experimental laboratory for new urban practices in African cities. Princess Marilyn Douala Bell from the royal family associated with the city of Douala and Didier Schaub co-created this space in 1995 by restoring the former cinema of the Palace of the Douala Kings. Today it has a lovely garden, with outdoor café-style seating, a small café, a spacious gallery, and a small art library.  We had a chance encounter today with the Princess, a woman, perhaps in her early 60s, with greying hair.

She didn’t particularly look like a princess, was very friendly and charming. She did not hesitate, though, to let us know how busy she was with the upcoming Triennale focused on public art, opening on Monday. The gallery seemed to have a hectic air with some of the visiting international artists coming and going.

We were a strange group, made up of an Indian Professor, two Austrians working in West and Central Africa, a former German newspaper journalist who has been struggling with community radio in eastern Congo (DRC), a 23-year old Congolese radio broadcaster, and a newspaper journalist and community media activist from Sierra Leone – that was led on the walking tour by this young woman. One of the curious things we saw was a statue of General Leclerc, who, under Charles de Gaulle, had come to Cameroon during the Second World War to seek support for the cause of Free French.  The statue was barricaded by a metal barrier apparently to prevent frequent vandalism directed against it. One activist in particular has been urinating on the statue and a few months ago had even beheaded the statue, took it home, and hid it under his bed. He was arrested and went through a jail sentence.  He has been advocating for replacing the LeClerc statue with that of Ruben Um Nyobe, who led the armed struggle against French colonialism in Cameroon and was killed by the French army in 1958.

December 1, 2018

We left at 8:00 am for Buea, the capital of the Southwest region of Cameroon, considered to be the locus of the Anglophone discontent and demand for secession.  Until a few weeks ago, Buea had curfews and, as recently as a few days ago, there were reports of random shootings that killed men of the gendarmerie. The town is located on the eastern slopes of Mount Cameroon and served as the capital of the German colony in the early 1900s. The town hosts University of Buea, the country’s first Anglophone University, as well as three Catholic Universities.

Buea is home base for Alexander Vojvoda, with his office located in CBS Radio. We met Rev. Mkoko Thomas, the current secretary of the Presbyterian Church of Cameroon (PCC) and former station manager of the radio station.  He explained that the PCC, with its headquarters in Buea, has print, web, and radio units.  It was in 2004 that the Church inaugurated the radio station in Buea, along with another one in Bamenda. When asked about the religious orientation of the station, he said that at the outset it was clearly a Church radio with a lot of religious content.  In 2011, they started broadcasting programmes that went beyond the gospel and scripture, with a more distinct community focus. Today there are programmes on a wide range of issues, including health and development. When I asked what the station does for entertainment, he said they have gospel music, humour with clean jokes, and sports programmes that are hugely popular.  They cover politics, but not promote party agendas.  On the Anglophone crisis, he said, the Church was opposed to the demand for secession by the extremists and, instead, advocates dialogue between the government and the Anglophone side.

                                      Prof. Vinod Pavarala being interviewed by Alexander Vojvoda in Cameroon

The station broadcasts 24 hours a day. Although they have a 1000 W station, they usually broadcast between 500-800 W. I was puzzled by this as I had heard repeatedly that CR stations in Cameroon are limited to 250 W by the government. Anyway, Alexander said, because of the locational advantage, the station is heard quite widely, with calls received sometime from Cameroonians in Equitorial Guinea. The station right now has no sustainability problems as the PCC allocates the budget on an annual basis. There’s no advertising permitted on community radios, but they do have some announcements. The CBS station in Buea has 11 staff members, and the Management Committee has professional journalists, with the Editorial Board of the Communication department of the Church overseeing the content. They are now working on starting a television station for the Church.

Our next stop, a brief one, was at the Bonakanda Rural Radio Station which was set up in 2001 with UNESCO support (and became operational in 2004). It did look like a typical community radio station in any rural area in a developing country. The station manager, Ndumbe Amos Evambe said a lot of their focus is on agriculture and rural development issues. They do not cover politics as their primary objective is to serve as a ‘development radio’.  They broadcast at 250 W power as permitted by the government. Everyone at the station is a volunteer, including the station manager. He said he was a retired employee of the state broadcasting service and has been working at this station as community service.  I also met young Franklin there who was introduced to me as a technical wizard in the area. He installs and maintains radio equipment not only in the Buea region, but also in many stations elsewhere, including in the Central African Republic.  There were also two women who didn’t talk much. One of them did the recording when the station manager interviewed me live on air.

Prof. Pavarala being interviewed on live radio, Bonakanda Rural Radio

Later that night, I found out, with a little bit of research on the Net ( that in 2013 the Government of Cameroon entered into an agreement with UNESCO, with the latter providing technical support for the establishment of 15 new community radio stations and reinstatement of 21 older ones.  Bonakanda must have been one of the older ones set up many years earlier. The agreement stated: “The government’s set target in raising awareness among rural populations on health issues, development, agriculture and trade is to ensure that 100 community radio stations are set up in the rural areas by 2020. The goal is to bring to 75%, the rates of access to local media. There are already twenty community radio stations broadcasting on the national territory.” If there are these many stations set up by UNESCO, how come CCMN has only 20-odd stations as its members? I am perplexed.

Our last stop in Buea was Hi-TV, Anglophone Cameroon’s first English speaking television station, whose manager Leonard was active at the workshop and is the Secretary General of CCMN. The channel was created in 2011 with the support of a few diasporic Cameroonians in Germany and Switzerland. Leonard said it’s a community-oriented television station, with the mainstream television content being most elitist.  They present issues around the country through talk shows, news, interviews, and programmes on agriculture and health.  They also promote local talents. The channel went on satellite last year for greater reach. There is some advertising on the channel and make additional revenues by providing video production services to those who need them in town.  It has a staff of 12, with seven ‘permanent’ and five who come in to make specific programmes.  On the Anglophone crisis, Leonard and another of the managing committee members who joined us said, their editorial policy is to be more moderate and they desist from any talk of secession. This is the only television station to be a member of CCMN. We could leave only after Leonard did an interview with me on live television!

 Kum Bim Leonard of HiTV and President, CCMN

It got dark by the time we returned to Foyer du Marin in Douala after a tiring two-hour drive.  Alexander and Sebastian insisted on treating me at a nice Italian restaurant in town to thank me, they said, for my contributions these past two weeks to building of solidarity around community radio and formation of networks in the region.

I flew back the next day to Mumbai, enriched by the amazing West African experiences and humbled by the tenacity that community media activists showed here in the face of civil war, ethnic conflicts, disease outbreaks, and dysfunctional polities. Their work gives much reinforcement to the idea that community media, especially radio, could serve well in such situations through practice of peace journalism and content related to community development and social change.  You cannot but admire the sense of optimism exuded by these men and women wielding microphones and cameras that their work can make a difference.

Prof. Vinod Pavarala live on HiTV, Anglophone Cameroon’s first TV station