Democracy in Question?

The Role of Radio in Transitions to Democracy

Episode Notes

The episode explores the role of locally embedded news and media organizations in facilitating citizen participation in societies seeking to further democracy. In the age of misinformation, can the patient and steady pace of radio journalism prove to be a much-needed democratic corrective? In the discussion, Caroline Vuillemine and Said Nazir examine the role of the radio and the opportunities facing this medium of public communication.


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Glossary for episode 5 Caroline & Said

What is Fondation Hirondelle?

(00:1:03 or p.1 in the transcript) 

Fondation Hirondelle is a Swiss non-profit organization which provides information to populations

faced with crisis, empowering them in their daily lives and as citizens. Founded in 1995 and based in

Lausanne, Fondation Hirondelle currently implements media programmes in 8 countries in Africa

and Asia.Through our work, millions of people in war-affected countries, post-conflict areas,

humanitarian crises, and societies in democratic transition have access to media that speak to them

and give them a voice.Fondation Hirondelle practices and defends responsible, independent,

accurate journalism in conflict and post-conflict situations, in humanitarian crises and countries in

democratic transition. Our information covers the news in the countries and regions where we work,

as well as key issues that connect societies.Our debate programs bring together all political and

social components of society. They facilitate the participation of ordinary people in public debate,

and create a platform where everyone has a voice and people can seek common solutions to

problems. Source


What is TNN?

(00:1:22 or p.1 in the transcript) 

Founded by broadcast journalists, TNN provides balanced and accurate news coverage of events

particularly in KP and tribal districts providing local people with local news and information that

affect their social and political lives.TNN has just become digital-first where it reports first for online

audience and then reversions those stories for 10 partner FM radio stations in the region.

TNN was established to serve radio audiences through partner FM radio stations in 2014, but with

the passage of time it has evolved itself as an online multimedia news organization catering to the

needs of online audience in the Pakhtun areas. TNN also produces and broadcasts telephonic

bulletins in Pashto since September 2016 that provide latest stories to unique audience of 100,000

that are registered with TNN. The news can be heard by dialing a local number from mobile phone.

TNN also produces daily five-minute long radio bulletins in Pashto on the most important news

events for broadcast by a network of 10 partner radio stations across KP and tribal districts. News

stories, features and interviews are also published on the TNN website in Pashto, Urdu and English

to tell national and international audiences about events in our region. TNN also accommodates

news and views of interest to Pakhtun audience in other parts of Pakistan and also in Afghanistan.


Episode Transcription

S.R: Welcome to "Democracy in Question," the podcast series that explores the challenges democracies are facing around the world today. I'm Shalini Randeria, the new Rector and President of Central European University in Vienna and Senior Fellow at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.

In this episode, I'm speaking to two guests, both practitioners of the crucial fourth estate of democracy, and that is journalism. Their work is based in contexts and communities far away from the glitz and glamor of mainstream media in the West, but also in the countries in which they're working, in places where journalism is absolutely central to the transition to democracy and to its deepening.

Caroline Vuillemin is director of the Swiss nonprofit organization Fondation Hirondelle. It's based in Lausanne, founded in 1995. It runs media programs in countries which are facing internal conflict and multiple crises. We're also joined by Said Nazir, who is the managing editor and co-founder of Tribal News Network, TNN, a radio and multimedia platform that operates out of northwest Pakistan, an area bordering Afghanistan.

Today, with Caroline and Said, we will explore the role of locally embedded news and media organizations in facilitating citizen participation in societies seeking to further democracy. In particular, I will talk to them about the role of the radio and the specific opportunities that this often forgotten and neglected medium of public communication faces today. In the age of misinformation, amplified also in magnitude by social media, can the patient and steady pace of radio journalism prove to be one much-needed democratic corrective? Let's find out in our conversation today.

Welcome, Caroline, and welcome, Said. It's wonderful to have you with me for this podcast.


C.V: Thank you. Very glad to be here.


S.N: Thanks, Shalini, for inviting me on this important topic to talk about the importance of radio.


S.R: So, let me start with you first, Caroline, because I think we need to understand some of the background to the work of your foundation, which has been focused on facilitating and democratizing access to media in Asia and Africa for over 25 years now. We have witnessed, of course, in this period, a sea change in the media landscape, for example, with the emergence of the social media and what it has meant, has been not only an unprecedented expansion of access but also of participation to individual citizens in the process of information production and dissemination. However, today more than ever, we also see that the relationship between information and democracy has become fraught. Misinformation poses one of the biggest challenges to democracies across the world. The paucity of commonly shared facts threatens to undermine the basic fabric of our public spheres, which is a fundamental prerequisite for any functioning democratic society. How do you see the role of your foundation, Fondation Hirondelle, in this radically altered mediascape? And maybe you would like to start with just telling us about the origins of the foundation of this nongovernmental organization, which is quite unique.


C.V: Yes, thank you. The foundation was created 26 years ago by three Swiss journalists as a response to the Rwandan genocide. They had witnessed firsthand the suffering of the people but also how rumors and misinformation had pushed some people to act and act violently up to committing genocide. And as journalists, they wanted to do something to help the people. So they decided to create a radio. The name of the radio was Radio Agatashya, which means the swallow bird, hirondelle in French. And the principles they wanted for this radio are the principles we still use today.

The first one is to work locally from the ground with local journalists that we can train, if needed, and to whom we give the enabling environment for professional, independent, and public-oriented journalism. So really making sure that information is produced professionally, checking facts, verifying sources, crossing information, and so forth, but also information that is useful for the people. To produce that information, one of the principles is to work so that the newsroom is at the image of the society in terms of inclusivity, representation. That means languages, for instance. Of course, gender balance, and when needed, ethnic or religious representation of all sides. And one of the key elements is also to work so that there is a national dialogue that is created using the media as a platform for, again, all ideas and all points of views to be heard and different visions of the society, of the reality to be expressed so that people can make their own decision. News and information media are not there to tell people what to do or what to think but to provide them with facts, with expertise, with testimonies so that everyone can make his or her own point of view.


S.R: So, when it comes to one of the key features that distinguishes the work of your foundation in the media landscape, it is the importance that you have given to the work of the radio. And in discussions around the media and the public sphere, I think we completely forget the fact, today, that access to the internet is still beyond the reach of billions of people in the world. And for vast sections of the world citizens, especially in the Global South, the radio remains one of the most accessible of media. So, could you tell us something about how radio journalism became a central pillar of the work that your foundation does? How is it different from other forms of mass communications? And what are the unique ways in which the radio contributes to citizen engagement and to democracy? [


C.V: Using radio in a fragile context and even in other contexts, actually, means that you open access to information and content to a very broad part of the population. Radio is cheap. You know, you can have a small FM receiver with batteries. You don't need to have your home with reliable electricity all the time, the difference from TV or sometimes with computers. It is very accessible in terms of learning capacity. You don't have to know how to write and read. The information comes to you orally in your local language. It is also free in the sense of you don't have to subscribe, like you have to subscribe to get a mobile phone number. And in terms of journalism, radio is a very flexible and agile tool, because you can go rapidly to an event or to something going on. Even today, many journalists use their mobile phone to record. Through radio, you can also create a stronger sense of trust between you and your audience. The voice helps creating the kind of intimacy between the journalist or the presenters and the listeners, and that's very powerful.


S.R: I really take your points that the radio is both technologically much easier to manage in terms of production capacity but also in terms of transmission and, of course, much cheaper for people to access. But some of the contexts in which you work, in countries in Africa and Asia, which are so-called post-conflict societies, raise unique challenges for the work of radio journalists, so I want to turn to Said in a moment. But the one question I do want to ask you, Caroline, is, apart from the obvious threat of violence from vested interests, reporters who are being perceived to not be giving very favorable coverage to certain things, what other experiences has your foundation had about reporting from these very, very difficult contexts in which democracies are not the norm? So, what does it mean to stay neutral in such conditions? And is it possible to maintain neutrality in the face of violence?


C.V: Yes, it is possible, and one of the basic tools we use is to have an editorial charter, which states what we will do, and we have to do what we say. So, when we come into a country and we request authorization to work and be an employer of journalists and request for frequencies, we present that editorial charter that is really based on international principle of journalism in terms of balanced information, impartiality. And so, of course, sometimes the authorities, sometimes other vested power in the country, disagree with that view, but when they realize that the rules of the game are the same for everyone, they accept them, and it becomes for them, a very necessary tool, because sometimes the government, they may have a government radio. I'm not talking about the public broadcaster because, very often, it's just the mouth of the government. But technically, they don't reach all the country or they don't have all languages to reach to the people. And so, they come, again, to the debate show or they answer interviews because that's the way for them to reach out to people.

But in terms of constraints, sometimes they may refuse to come and answer questions because they know, then, they will have to account for what they have said, because this is not confidential. It goes public, it is listened to by millions of people, and journalists will come back and say, "Hey, you said you would do that, or you said that you disagree with this. And what are you doing?" So that public commitment is sometimes frightening for them, but at the same time, I think this is the power of the people, and it is a powerful element of democratization and accountability.


S.R: So, Said, let me bring you in, from Peshawar, at this point. It's wonderful to have you joining from your own radio studio to this conversation. And let me ask you a question about what are the kinds of issues you very particularly have been facing in northwest Pakistan, on the Afghanistan border, as I said, which is where you have set up your radio network, multimedia platform. What kinds of issues do you face as a journalist? Do you see certain kinds of inherent risks in your day-to-day operations? And if there are risks which are specific to you in this very conflictual situation, what are the kinds of strategies which the Tribal News Network adopts to mitigate these kinds of risks?


S.N: I would say that we are working in a very dangerous spot in the country close to the Afghan border. So talking about the questions, I would say that, sometimes, when there's a conflict in some areas, entry or access to information is prohibited by warring parties. So, it's a big challenge for us. Another problem is this is a male-dominated society, a patriarchic society here, so women are not allowed to work outside and to talk to alien male. So, it's difficult for media houses to reach out to women and talk to them. And the third thing that we see, is that business is shrinking in different parts of the world. So financial sustainability is a big question for most of the media houses here. I would say that TNN is a leading organization here in northwest Pakistan that has the majority of female reporters now. Forty percent of people who are working with TNN are female journalists.


S.R: This is very, very important given the particular context that you are in. So, Said, let me ask you two questions, which follow from what you've just said. When you say financial sustainability is an issue, I think it's become an issue for the press, for print newspapers, or even television stations, because everyone is basically dependent on revenue from advertisements. So, do you take any advertisements at all? Is there any support from the private sector to your kind of radio enterprise? Or do you have a community basis where people are contributing in other ways to keep your broadcasting going?


S.N: TNN started as a radio organization here to provide news service to radio stations, but a radio here in this region, I think they have a very small share in the advertisement industry. Even it is from the government, a big chunk of advertisement would come from the government, but the radio stations would have a very small portion of the advertisement revenue. So, we heavily depended on our donor organizations and international media development organizations to continue our work and do stories. We have increased our revenue from radio stations, and 20% of our income comes from the radio stations, and 5% to 10% comes from online revenue. So still, 70% we are working with our donor organizations and media development organizations to work on different projects specifically related to access to information in this region.


S.R: So, let me get to the other point, which you just mentioned. When you said 40% of the people working with you in the organization are women, and there are many, many gender-related issues that you need to take up, so could you just give us an example of the kinds of programs that you do on questions of gender, which are so highly political in your context?


S.N: We cannot have 50% or more than 50% population to be silent on issues that are affecting their lives. So we have started a radio station in Mardan region in 2019. For that, we did audience research about radio consumption of women in Mardan District. So we interviewed 400 houses, and we got their feedback. In light of that survey, what we did, we trained 12 female journalists from that district. We trained the first female journalist from Waziristan, and now, she is not only contributing to TNN but also BBC and other international media organizations.


S.R: Said, let me turn to the recent COVID crisis and ask you, how has that affected your work? Because it obviously means you cannot move about as easily as was earlier the case. And as a radio station committed to local news, dissemination of factual information, and direct reporting, which is hugely important to people living under the pandemic, what did you do on questions like vaccine hesitancy in the area? Could you say something about the kinds of programs that you were able to produce during the last one year, one-and-a-half years?


Said: So, I would say that, thanks to Fondation Hirondelle because they supported our work to provide important information about COVID-19 and vaccination to the communities which are usually cut off from the mainstream. So, we are running a one-hour radio show, which is broadcasted by eight radio stations in the border region, including Waziristan and where radio is the main source of information for those people. So, we pick a specific topic for each program, and then we do reporting from different angles using different formats for 15 minutes, depending on the topic. It could be an official from the government, it could be from the health authorities, it could be from an NGO, depending on the topic. Afterward, the community is invited to talk to the guest. So, the guest is in the studio, they respond to the questions of the community, if they have some. And if you see the feedback, people, we have heard from them that, before, they were hesitant and they were not accepting the COVID-19 as a disease. And afterward, listening to those programs, some have vaccinated their children. In other cases, vaccinated themselves. And now they are spreading the word in their community. And there are so many examples that we see from our program that we have made an impact and will change the mindset of the community. And we are still doing it.


S.R: So, I was quite interested in what you said about the vaccines because what we are hearing is that Pakistan is one of the countries which is receiving vaccines from the COVAX, WHO’s program for providing affordable vaccination to many countries which otherwise would have been left out. But, let me turn to both of you, first to Caroline with a very specific question, because Said has mentioned several times about training journalists, training women journalists, training them in editing, training them in different kinds of formats. So, Caroline could you speak about two things. One about the concrete ways in which the Fondation Hirondelle trains citizens in journalistic practices and it does so in their own languages. So, you are very focused on broadcasting in local languages. And one of the things which surprised me about your work is the insistent that you should have the same content in every local language. Whereas I, as an anthropologist would have imagined that you would be very sort of sensitive to a diversity of contexts and wanting very different kinds of contexts according to the particular situation. Whereas your insistence was the need to have a standardized context across language groups in order to create a common public sphere. So, could you talk to both of those issues?


C.V: Yes, on the second point it is quite particular and it is not something that we do in Switzerland, for instance. You know, in Switzerland, we have four official languages. And in the public broadcasting services, that is very rich, and each language has its own public broadcasting system, and it's not the same content. But we are not living through a crisis or a post-conflict area, and we have the rule of law and quite some structural bodies to make sure that there is a social and national cohesion.

When you don't have that social and national cohesion, what happens is, very often, languages are used to manipulate people. I take the example of Mali in West Africa. If you are from the north of the country, you will speak Tamasheq, and in the south, you speak Bambara, which is a more traditional West African language. And so, through our media, what we try and want to do is make sure that no one is left out or is given less or more information because he or she understands Tamasheq or Bambara. And so, it has built the credibility of the media that people can firsthand witness and feel that, you know, this is the same content, and the media is not trying to deepen the division or, again, create more hostilities among the communities.

And in terms of training, learning journalism is by doing. You can go to journalism school to learn about the ethics and the rules in theory, but it is really by doing that you learn. And so we always put the training in a practical set, in the sense that very young journalists or even more experienced journalists but that may have got with the bad habits over the years will go from the newsroom and the editorial meeting to identify the topics, identify the angles, making sure that the questions are defined and decided by the newsroom, and then go do the reportage or interviews. And by doing, then the role of the editor-in-chief is crucial, because the editor-in-chief is an ongoing coach, in a way. There is critical feedback and there is critical response to the production prior to the broadcast so that the quality is there, but also, when it's live the day after, there is always a feedback mechanism. And this is by doing that the journalists learn.

Our experience is that, you know, journalism is about curiosity. It's about honesty. It's about ethics. And once you give that to people, everyone is able, even in the most fragile context, to do good journalism.


S.R: So, Said, could you give us a few examples of how you have been finding the women to train, and how have you been training them in a context in which women are usually confined to the home and the men in the family would be quite resistant to having wives or daughters moving around freely, talking to men, talking to strangers, and then coming to the radio station to curate a program?


S.N: It's a very important question, and it's a very tricky one. But I would say that we have examples set for women. We are trying to give them leadership roles in the newsroom. So, it inspires other women. One of the earlier reporters, in beginning, everybody was discouraging her, but now, everybody is appreciating her work. So, this is a change of mind, and we are so proud of it. We have requests from women, now, that, "We need training. We have seen this reporter and that reporter, and we want to join TNN. And please give us chance." And it's so encouraging. The second point of the local language is very important in Pakistan. In our region, Urdu is not the language of everybody. So only educated people could understand it. It doesn't help the local population because they have so many problems. And the media should speak to them in their local language so it will be very beneficial. And we are doing it.


S.R: Thank you so much, Caroline, thank you so much, Said, for joining me today in this episode, reflecting on the continuing importance of the radio for a peaceful transition to democracy. Thank you for being with me.


C.V: Thank you for having us.


S.N Thanks for being with us on this show.


S.R: So, let me turn to a very quick wrap-up of some of the main issues that came out in our conversation. We forget what an important source of information the radio still continues to be for local communities around the world, especially in the Global South. The radio is not only an affordable medium to listen to, but it is also an affordable medium to produce information. This information, which is oral in local languages, it doesn't need subscription by the listeners. There are fewer security concerns because of the lack of registration. The radio is a flexible, agile medium, as we heard. One can use just a mobile phone to record a conversation. Transmission has become much easier technologically. The oral content which the radio is able to broadcast, it creates a strong sense of trust. It is more powerful and direct content.

The challenges. The challenges of providing for news, neutral news, based on impartiality, on fact-checking, on testimonies, news which can also cause tension in societies which are conflict-ridden, are going through a crisis, the newsroom itself then becomes a mirror of society and these societal tensions, and it must be the place where different points of view can be argued, can be discussed openly in order to foster a national dialogue. The financial sustainability of radio stations remains a challenge. When revenue from advertisements is not forthcoming, they are dependent in many of these contexts on foreign donors, on donors who not only provide financial means to produce content but also helping in training, in moderating, in mentoring those new aspiring journalists into the art of producing according to a code of ethics, according to an editorial charter, which subscribes to balanced and impartial information and the same rules of the game which apply to everybody.

We also heard why we need radio content based broadcast in local languages but also for why this content needs to be standardized across different linguistic contexts and communities in order to create the social cohesion, which is often missing at the political level, and especially in contexts where languages tend to become a politicized medium to convey tangential information. It's that context where it becomes very important to get the same information across to all groups of citizens and to provide an inclusive content, which is able to foster community peace and national dialogue.

This was the fifth episode of season three. Thank you very much for listening to us. Please go back and listen to any episode that you might have missed. And of course, let your friends know about this episode if you've enjoyed listening to it. You can stay in touch with the work of the CEU at and the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy at