|Posted by Jacob Jacob on October 6, 2010 at 12:47 PM|
The situation in Somalia is becoming more troubling. Al-Qaeda linked Islamist groups Al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam have intensified their operations against independent Somali media institutions. They recently seized two radio stations and will now use them to broadcast their ideology.
Even more troubling is the international community’s dithering over Somalia. The African Union (AMISOM) deployment in the country is too feeble (in terms of mandate, troop number and equipment) to make any meaningful impact. Quite frankly, I don’t think higher troop numbers or even a more robust mandate will help at the moment. Besides, which country would send its troops to a potential hole that is as deep if not deeper than Afghanistan and Iraq combined. As it stands, Somalia is a ‘no-go area’ for all that matters. Africa's most prolific peacekeeper, Nigeria wont touch it with a mile-long pole. It is not just about sorting out a bunch of drugged militias (as the Americans realised in 1993) but sorting out a whole system of domestic and foreign shadow networks that have ultimately taken over a failed state including its territorial waters, seaports, airports, trade routes, law enforcement systems - almost every apparatus of state. Sea Ports such as the one in Kismayo have been taken over by Islamic militants and it is a key route through which key assets (including weapons, cash and drugs) are brought in.
Now the battle turf has entered the airwaves. Before now, Al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam were contented with censoring the media. They had since banned the re-broadcast of BBC and Voice of America by local FM stations. They had also banned radio stations from playing ‘un-Islamic’ songs! And in April, radio stations were ordered to stop referring to foreign Islamic militants as ‘foreigners’ but as ‘Muhaajiriins’ or Islamic emigrants.
The UN’s attempt at information intervention in Somalia is rather curious . The UN Support Office for AMISOM (UNSOA) last year awarded a multi-million dollar contract to a consortium of strategic communication consulting companies (led by Bell Pottinger) to carry out some strategic communications functions in support of AMISOM. A key element of this outsourced UN PIO is the Radio component. Radio Bar-kulan, operated by Okapi Consulting, has been broadcasting from its studios in Kenya since March 2010. The station seeks to promote peace in Somalia by reporting the news, interviewing key actors and providing a forum for Somalis to phone in and make comments. Refreshingly, it also plays music!
I have immense respect for David Smith, the head of Okapi Consulting. He formerly headed MONUC’s public information operations in the DRC. Although Radio Bar-Kulan would prefer to downplay its association with the UN, most people in Somalia do know that radio Bar-Kulan is associated with AMISOM or at best with the UN anyway. Frankly, I think it does not do the radio station any good if it keeps underplaying its UN links. It is imperative that Bar-Kulan’s purpose and mission be made clear forthrightly. Somalis may actually engage more deeply with a UN-backed radio. The most important thing for folks in crises states is credibility of the news source. In 1993, Radio Manta – the radio mission of UNOSOM was explicit about its source and routinely announced itself as Halkani wa radio manta, codka haulgaladha qaramatha midhoobey, ee Somalia (the voice of the United Nations Operations in Somalia). Audiences engaged with the station as such. Granted, the strategic situation is different now, but what remains the same is that in crises situations, the deepest needs of households and communities are informational. Socially transmitted information or rumours swirl like desert dusts in crises societies particularly so in a case where insurgents have taken over means of information. Rumours are prevalent because people need some kind of information to negotiate their resilience - interpret the crises and understand their vulnerabilities. For Radio Bar-Kulan, one of the few Radio Stations that are untouchable by Somali Islamists (at the moment), its responsilities have become humanitarian in nature. Radio Bar-Kulan needs to step up and assert its position as an information purveyor. Somalians need objective and accurate information now more than ever before, and as the situation unfolds, they would be looking to Bar-Kulan to fill what has now become a major humanitarian need.