Voice of a Nation

Congolese Radio Okapi receives award for media pioneer work

News | Justin McCauley, Joseph D. Rollwagen | October 2010

In a documentary on the Congolese Radio Okapi broadcast earlier this year on Swiss Television, a reporter takes the camera inside a tiny struggling hospital. Here everything is in short supply: too few staff, not enough medication, almost no advanced technology, and only 11 beds, a doctor explains, for the hundreds who come seeking treatment.

"So how do you manage?" the reporter asks, holding out her recorder to catch the doctor’s gentle voice.

"Well, what else can we do?" he replies quietly. "We cannot abandon our brothers."

Since its founding in 2002, Radio Okapi has become the eyes, ears and voice of a nation recovering from the bitterness of civil war. Launched as a joint project by Swiss NGO Foundation Hirondelle and the UN mission in Democratic Republic of Congo, Okapi is the DRC’s largest media outlet, with 24-hour radio coverage and various print editions that reach the entire country, an area comparable to Western Europe. Setting the highest standards for ethics and verification in the face of constant outside pressure, Okapi is credited with both raising journalistic standards and improving professional conditions for the Congolese media.

For all these reasons, Radio Okapi was awarded this year’s Free Media Pioneer Award by the International Press Institute on Sept. 12 at the IPI World Congress 2010 in Vienna.

"The station meets every one of our standards for this award and then some," said Naomi Hunt, IPI Press Freedom Advisor for Africa, after the ceremony. "Radio Okapi has shown ‘the courage and perseverance’ we honor with this award."

For editor in chief Leonard Mulamba, the station’s ethical standards are the central value of their mission.

"We avoid commentary and focus on facts," Mulamba confirmed in an interview. "For us, this is essential. As a post-conflict country, there is a need for media that works well." Now, most other media outlets in DRC get their info from Okapi; "even the DRC’s minister of information uses Okapi as a standard reference."

However, these standards trigger opposition, and sometimes violence.

"There is intimidation from the military," Mulamba acknowledged, "whenever we cover a villager’s rape by a soldier, for instance, the state-media will hold a press conference to vilify and discredit Okapi."

And it is not just the government.  Journalists covering militias have received death threats, mostly via mobile telephones.  "We often move our threatened journalists around," said Mulamba, "and when we cover conflict zones, we have no fixed position in the area, and constantly rotate journalists in and out to keep them safe."

But these measures aren’t always enough; in the last two years, Okapi has lost two journalists in the field.  "It’s impossible to tell who’s responsible for their deaths," said Mulamba, given the melee of military and militia activity.  Mulamba remains undeterred.

"We are the only media outlet that reaches the entire country," he said, Radio Okapi assists smaller stations with equipment and support in making their voices heard.

Okapi also informs the public about available public services they might otherwise never hear about, reporting on education and health issues, "such as what vaccinations people need and where to get them," Mulamba said. They also hold political debates on air, critical in cultivating DRC’s young democracy, and information on how and where people can vote.

The award helps the rest of DRC recognize the importance of ethical journalism, the editor said, something he says is rarely found.

Are the risks worth it?

"Simple answer? The population needs to be informed."

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