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An Interactive Media: Reflections on Mega FM and Its Peacebuilding Role in Uganda


By
Patrick William Otim
March, 2009

 
This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Introduction

Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) in Rwanda is known not because it broadcasts the best programs or brings the world's celebrities to its programs, but because of the role it played in organizing the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. As a result, thousands of books, academic journals, and articles have been written across the globe on how this radio was used to organize one of the fastest rates of death in human history. In only about 100 days, about 800,000 Rwandese lay dead.

In Uganda, there is Mega FM, the exact opposite of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines. Mega FM is based in the little-known town of Gulu. It was set up by the British government through the DFID, and today it is well known for peacebuilding in a region that has seen one of the most brutal rebellions in the world — The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebellion.

Mega FM was built at the freedom square, a place where the British put up their first flag in Gulu in 1907 and later met resistance from a courageous Lamogi clan, which became the first resistance against the British imperial rule in Uganda in 1912. It is one of the radio stations that has benefited from the privatization of airwaves in Uganda. "Since 1986, there has been liberalization of radio airwaves, with new community and commercial stations entering the market to compete with the state-funded radio broadcaster."[1] In Gulu alone, there are four FM stations: Mega FM, Radio King, Choice FM and Radio Four.

The first radio station in Gulu and all of northern Uganda was Freedom FM. This was operated on 88.8 MHz. It was closely supervised by the army. "Radio Freedom (also known as Radio Gulu) was used by the army as a means to communicate with the people living in and around the town of Gulu."[2] In 1999, DFID started building Mega FM to replace Radio Freedom and Mega FM went on-air in August 2002.

Today, it broadcasts 24 hours a day on 102.1 and 103.1 MHz. The station has a workforce of over 40 staff, 25 of whom are on a full-time basis while 15 are part-time staff. The radio covers all areas in Gulu, Pader, Amuru and some parts of Kitgum District, Southern Sudan and eastern DRC. It also broadcasts information about conflict, development, health and education, all of which are geared towards conflict resolution.

Mega FM Program Formats

As time goes by, I still remember the words of my Radio and Television course leader, Turan Ali, in 2005 at Radio Netherland Training Center (RNTC) in Netherland: "A good radio is all about program not the power of the radio signals or buildings. It's about the staff and their creativity." This is one of the things that makes Mega FM outstanding and allows it to dominate the airwaves in northern Uganda. Their creativity and good programs have swayed huge audiences from other stations and advertisers are willing to pay any amount of money to advertise and reach these many different categories of people.

Mega FM uses a variety of formats like magazine, interviews, testimony, drama, report, montage, actuality and discussions. These program formats fit a diverse audience from a child to an adult, a town-dweller to an internally displaced person, a working-class to a farmer, a drop-out to a university student. Their programs have been summarized by David Okidi, the station manager:

"Our programming is based on the fact that we need to inform and entertain so even when we are informing we need to do so in a way that is very interesting. So, coming from a background of conflict, our kind of programming should not forget the fact that listeners are depressed and the programming should appeal to them."[3]

Their magazine format has a number of successful programs; however, two of the programs are particularly popular: Wang-oo, "fireplace" and Lok Atyer Kamaleng, "straight talk." In this format, different issues or topics are recorded and mixed into one programme. The Wang-oo program is a replica of how the fireplace used to be, in the peaceful days, where important issues about society were discussed. This program is played at 8pm every Thursday, and is dominated by advice from elders and lawyers on how to deal with land conflicts. Lok Atyer Kamaleng plays every Saturday and tackles reproductive health issues among young people in the Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps. It is largely popular among the young people throughout northern Uganda. One 15-year-old IDP, Ojok Sunday, living in Odek IDP camp believes,

"This is my best program on Mega FM. It addresses different sex education issues like teenage pregnancy, AIDS, how to use a condom and where to go and test for it. This is a very helpful radio show for us in the camps. It gives us information that we can't go to town to get because of the insecurity."[4]

Secondly, Mega FM also uses interview program format, which features a number of people such as political and administrative leaders, covering topics concerning the latest development in the conflict. The interview format embeds questions from phone-ins and letters from listeners. Responses from phone calls and letters are given during the program. The guest speakers have been district political leaders and sometimes even the Lord's Resistance Army leaders have been interviewed on the program. The interviews with political leaders normally revolve around the prospect of peace and resettlement. Akello Sarah (34-year-old) says,

"I love to listen to the Resident District Commissioner program with Lt. Rtd. Walter Ochora because he gives us a balance view on the government's commitment to ending the conflict and also informs us about where and how to get our resettlement packages now that we are returning to our ancestral homes."[5]

What personally motivates me to listen to the station has been the testimony of some of the LRA rebel returnees. Mega FM runs a montage format program called Dwog cen paco, "coming back home." In this program, former child soldiers speak straight to the audience and narrate their ordeal of captivity. I find this program quite compelling, especially when child soldiers tell their stories of how they were forced to kill a colleague who was trying to escape. The last time I was listening to the program, I was glued for over an hour trying to follow the journey of a young girl from the day she was captured to the day she returned to her parents. It was compelling, sad, and painful.

Drama is yet another good program format that comes on Mega FM. There are a number of radio dramas, which include a serial drama called Wang-oo. This is done to complement Wang-oo magazine program. It is aimed at helping IDP resolve land conflicts, protecting human rights and helping IDPs make informed decisions whether or not to return. One of the longest running dramas on Mega FM has been Rock Point 256, a serial drama on sex education. It has run for over 18 months and is extremely popular among young people 16 to 25 years old.

Besides Drama, Mega FM also uses Debate program format. This is one of the most widely listened-to programs on Mega. The program is called Kabakke. It's recorded on a weekly basis in different villages with different topics. Normally, it is a forum where the community debates on topics like "Can we stop land conflict amongst us?" It is highly informative, entertaining, and a well-balanced debate. Okidi remarked,

"One of the things that keep people coming back to us [Mega FM] are the debates. A lot of our programs rely on the participation of the audience. One example of our programs [Kabakke], our village debates, where every week we go from one place to another and the each community is in charge of the topics, which we record. This show lasts for an hour and a half."[6]

In addition, Mega FM also uses Reporting program format when a single subject needs to be explored in-depth by a reporter. When something happens abruptly like land conflict happens in a particular village, a reporter is sent to cover it and later a detailed report is broadcast to the audience. Sometimes, these stories are recorded and edited to narrate a story without a radio-show host.

There is also the Actuality program format that Mega FM uses, which is normally done in areas where people are returning to their homes. The presenter reports the return progress as seen at the return sites. These are unedited live events.

Finally, Mega FM also uses the Discussion program format, whereby a group of people discuss a subject with a presenter. There is one popular discussion program called Teyat, meaning "under the tree" which has regular "political analysts" who come and discuss political issues every Saturday for two hours. Listeners through phone-ins and letters engage the "analysts" on a particular issue. Mega FM provides diverse programming for the populations of northern Uganda with entertaining and informative programs.

Contributions of Mega FM in Northern Uganda

One of the most outstanding contributions of the radio has been in providing an avenue for communication between the government and the LRA, and as a result, it has helped build trust and confidence amongst the government, LRA and the civilian people. Ordinary civilians like Alexander Oketta, a 37-year-old IDP in Awach IDP camp, noted that,

"When I heard the LRA leader speaking on the radio for the first time, it gave me a second thought that he might not be as bad as we think he has been. I was very fascinated the way he talked about peace. I have a lot of confidence that the current Juba peace talks would succeed and the conflict will come to an end."[7]

For the government of Uganda, the radio has contributed differently. One district official in Gulu district remarked that,

"The radio has helped in confidence building. The rebels now know that we are not interested in killing them. When they listen to their former commanders who surrendered three years ago speak, it makes them trust us. To me the radio helps in building confidence between the government and the LRA."[8]

For many child soldiers, it provided them with a kind of information that they needed in order to abandon the rebellion and come home. There has been fear by the LRA for a long time that they would be killed if they abandon rebellion and return home. Okello, 17 years old, a former child-combatant, remarks,

"I always thought that the government was very bad and that they would kill us when we return home. When I started listening to my fellow colleagues whom we were in the bush with [Sudan], it gave me the confidence to come back and join my friends at home."[9]

Consequently, when the LRA leadership realized the impact of Mega FM programs like Dwog cen paco, the junior soldiers were immediately and completely banned from listing to the radio. Acaye, 17 years old, said,

"We were banned from listening to the radio. They would give you, at minimum, fifty strokes (beating) if found listening to the radio. Our commanders thought that we would all escape because the government was giving amnesty. I think Dwog Paco radio program was hugely influential to me. It helped me to listen to some of my friends whom were with me in the bush and I started looking for the opportunity to escape."[10]

Secondly, Mega FM has also been helpful in resettling the IDP community. It has invested huge resources in creating a network for local news for the station. They are constantly in touch with the government, NGOs and the local people. They have reporters in most of the camps. This has helped in sending quick and accurate information to the people. A lot of people believe that the radio has contributed by giving constant and relevant news updates on security situations, how people are returning home, which agencies are willing to help them, and also what is going on around the country. Akello Franca, Opit IDP camps says,

"I like Mega News program. They have local news that is relevant to our community. Yesterday, they were talking of places that have not been demined. This helps us to avoid going to places with landmines. Such coordination between Mega FM and the demining agencies is very helpful for us wanting to return and rebuild our homes and Mega FM is really helping us as we plan to return home after all these years in the camp."[11]

And Ocan Michael agrees:

"One thing I like about the Mega FM is the summary of the newspaper articles about what happens in Uganda. Many times we get to know what budget the government is setting for us to return and this makes us put the government accountable — especially our Gulu and Amuru districts leaders — when they come to see. That is my favorite program. I do not miss newspapers reviews because the radio brings it out for me in my local language."[12]

In addition, Mega FM has given people the opportunity to discuss rebuilding, and look for ways of reconciling differences in their villages. To many, they see the kind of public discourse on the conflict as one thing that is influential in peacebuilding. Acholi society believes in dialogue, thus the opportunity of debate and dialogue has given them time to talk about how to resolve the conflict. Ocok Saverio, 65, says,

"Mega FM gives us the opportunity to discuss and resolve conflict. We have debates every Sunday on our Kabakke program. This helps us to send our voices to the rebels and also helps us to resolve our petty differences like land conflicts. When we hear about land conflicts on the radio, as elders we have to go and resolve such conflicts and reunite people and stop escalation."[13]

Finally, Mega FM has provided opportunities for the many local, national and international communities to help in peacebuilding. There are many NGOs participating in peacebuilding programs by using the radio. Some NGOs, including Norwegian Refugee Council, World Vision, Human Rights Focus, and UN agencies, use radio for raising awareness on issues like human rights, food and non-food distributions. Mega FM also helps announce what kind of services are available for returning IDPs like health centers, schools, and water points. Okello Alex Ouma, Project Officer for the Education project of the Norwegian Refugee Council, says,

"'Go Back To School' campaign for children who have been out of school as a result of war and displacement. To me, I think this is an area where the radio has had profound impact on my work. I am able to use radio as a tool for mobilization for my program and Mega FM is very effective because of its wide coverage."[14]

Lakot Gladys states,

"Mega Fm has helped by providing information about the new developments in our villages and counties. Through the radio, we get to know where new boreholes have been sunk, where the government is now operating health centers and we also learn of places where we cannot return to because of landmines, insecurity or places plagued with tsetse flies. This helps us make informed decisions to return to our ancestral homes."[15]
Mega FM Strategies for Addressing Their Challenges

As the old saying goes, "Besides every good work you do, there is something that always prevents you." Mega FM has greatly contributed to peacebuilding but it also has its own challenges, which include the inability by many people to afford radio, especially IDPs. Since many cannot meet their basic personal needs, buying a radio handset is a luxury. Therefore, Mega FM addressed this by starting listening groups in camps to help those who do not own radios. In this way, information has reached many more people.

Similarly, there are also complaints from IDPs that those who have radios are unable to afford batteries. Mega FM and some NGOs like Norwegian Refugee Council and UNICEF have partnered and bought solar radios for the listening groups which has helped to curb the problem. "We have radio listening group in 17 camps and we are supporting them by buying solar radios from South Africa, which we give to the listening groups. This is much easier to use and IDPs no longer complain about batteries,"[16] says Okello Charles, an Information Officer for the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Finally, a section of young people feel Mega FM programs do not target them. They feel that Mega FM is geared towards information more than entertainment. Mega FM is planning to start a second channel to particularly cater to the entertainment of young people. David Okidi, the Station Manager of Mega FM states,

"We want to create a second channel that would be dedicated to the young people and the programming would be more about entertainment, but also give the youth information. The programming would have a bias towards young people, yet we are not forgetting the children still in school."[17]
Conclusion

Mega FM is one example of a success story of a community radio station, which has sprung up in many African countries especially during or after war. Initially, it was built with the intention to do little within the community of northern Uganda but it has accomplished more than expected. Its impact has been felt as far as southern Sudan and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It has greatly facilitated the peacebuilding process in northern Uganda but there is always one question for most community radio stations set up by donors and operated mostly by funds from NGOs. Will it survive when the international NGOs pack up their bags, when peace has returned to northern Uganda? Sustainability remains a huge task for Mega FM. It would be interesting to see how it copes with the drastic reduction in NGO funding.


[1] See BBC, "African Media Development Initiative: Uganda Context", accessed online on 24 January 2009. <http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/trust/pdf/AMDI/uganda/amdi-uganda5-radio.pdf>, p 14.

[2] Ibrahim Maggie, "Rebel Voices & Radio Actors: In Pursuit of Dialogue and Debate", accessed online on 27 January 2009. <https://cms.ids.ac.uk/UserFiles/file/knowledge-services/SLI/MaggieIbrahim-Uganda-Media2007-Final.pdf>, p 10.

[3] See "Reaching Out" in BBC Focus on Africa, accessed online 27 January 2009. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/focus-magazine/news/story/2008/03/080304-megafm.shtml>

[4] Interview conducted at Odek Internally Displaced Camp, Gulu District.

[5] Interview conducted at Odek Internally Displaced Camp, Gulu District.

[6] See "Reaching Out" in BBC Focus on Africa, accessed online 27 January 2009. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/focus-magazine/news/story/2008/03/080304-megafm.shtml>

[7] Interview conducted at Awach Internally Displaced Camp, Gulu District.

[8] Interview conducted at Gulu Municipality, Gulu District.

[9] Interview conducted at Gulu Municipality, Gulu District.

[10] Interview conducted at Gulu Municipality, Gulu District.

[11] Interview conducted at Opit internally Displaced Camp, Gulu District.

[12] Interview conducted at Opit Internally Displaced Camp, Gulu District

[13] Interview conducted at Awach Internally Displaced Camp, Gulu District.

[14] Interview conducted at Pader Town Council, Pader District.

[15] Interview conducted at Opit Internally Displaced Camp, Gulu District.

[16] Interview conducted at Gulu Municipality, Gulu District.

[17] See "Reaching Out" in BBC Focus on Africa, accessed online 27 January 2009. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/focus-magazine/news/story/2008/03/080304-megafm.shtml>

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