Today is World Radio Day, which celebrates the importance of radio and its ability to facilitate access to information and promote freedom of expression. Recognizing the “transformational power of radio” at its 36th general conference last November, the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization chose to hold the observance on February 13, which marks the day when UN Radio was launched in 1946.
In Africa, radio is the mass medium of choice for 70 to 90 percent of the population, according to Mary Myers, the author of a CIMA report, Voices from Villages: Community Radio in the Developing World. As a low-cost, low-powered medium that is portable and does not require literacy, radio is especially suited to reach remote and marginalized communities, while providing a space for information sharing and promoting public debate. Radio informs and empowers local populations on education, economic, and public health initiatives. And it is an important player in emergency communication, disaster relief, and peace-building.
This is the case in war-ravaged northern Uganda, where radio is playing a critical role in helping stop Africa’s longest running conflict. The fighting began in the 1980s, when Yoweri Museveni, after toppling the regime of Tito Okello, sought to impose his authority on resistance groups loyal to Okello. Most resilient among them was the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), run by Joseph Kony, who made abducting children and forcing them to fight or become sexual slaves his chief weapon. Since 1986, the LRA has been responsible for more than 100,000 deaths, 66,000 abductions, and 2 million displaced people.
While some abductees and former soldiers have managed to escape, many hide in the bush, afraid to return home because of reprisals for the atrocities they were forced to commit. LRA commanders tell their soldiers that UN peacekeepers, as well as their own communities, will kill them for what they have done. In response, the Voice Project has made music its counter-weapon in the fighting.
The Voice Project started in 2008, working with widows, rape survivors, and former abductees who had banded together to support each other and those orphaned by the war. The survivors composed songs, called “dwog paco,” or “come home,” to let former soldiers know that they are forgiven and that it is safe to return. The Voice Project seeks to amplify these movements by working with the UN to build FM radio stations, produce content, and record family members and ex-combatants in their native Acholi to encourage former combatants to come home.
And it’s working.
In the past two years more than 100 soldiers have escaped or defected from the LRA. Many returnees claimed that the radio was the sole reason they decided to leave:
- “We were dispersed in various groups. One of the Acholi songs played on the radio—‘the children of other people have returned home, mine has never resurfaced’—appealed to our hearts and we decided to plan to escape and return home to Uganda.” –Choosing to Return: Challenges faced by the Lord’s Resistance Army’s middle-ranking commander, Conciliation Resources Report
- “A group of 17 dependents came out wanting to surrender in Duru having listened to radio. They knew where to go because they followed the sound of the generator.” –Field Report from MONUSCO, the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, November 2011
- “There is at last a chance to defeat the LRA … by expanding the communication campaign that encourages LRA fighters to surrender so it covers the whole tri-border region and continue it until LRA groups no longer pose a threat to civilians.” –The Lord’s Resistance Army: End Game?, International Crisis Group Report, November 2011
Since the first broadcast more than 100 years ago, radio has proven its power as a source for mobilizing social change. Even in the digital age, it remains the world’s most accessible and affordable communication tool. As we celebrate World Radio Day for the first time, see how far a voice can carry.
Learn more about The Voice Project here.
Learn more about the power of radio here.
Special thanks to CIMA intern Brittany Anicetti for her research help.