Enormous challenges lie ahead for around twenty journalists in the east of Chad who’ve been working for the last seven years for the non-profit media development organisation Internews. Funding for three radio stations which serve a number of camps housing refugees from the Darfur conflict, as well as displaced Chadians and the local population, has ended, and now the stations are being forced to strike out on their own.
Internews, an oasis in a desert of information
In the windswept deserts of eastern Chad, Internews set up the three stations in 2007 and 2008 – Radio Sila (Goz Beida), Radio Absoun (Iriba) and Radio Voix de Ouaddai (Abeche) with funding from UNHCR and the US State Department’s Bureau for Population Migration and Refugees (BPRM) amongst others. Some 265,000 people fled the fighting which broke out in Darfur in 2003 and crossed the border, arriving in twelve refugee camps.
In recent years the situation in Darfur and eastern Chad has begun to stabilise and many humanitarian agencies and NGOs are now leaving even though the refugees are not going home. From early August the former Internews journalists will be working as volunteers until they can find their own new sources of funding.
I meet Madjihinguem Nguinabe, a 29-year old Chadian journalist, as he leaves the morning news conference at Radio Sila where he’s been working since 2009. His story for today is to cover a call by displaced Chadians to keep a health centre in the Gounkuroum camp running.
“I will give my body and soul to keep this radio station running,” he says, in between interviewing the nurses and patients who’ve arrived for consultations. “It’s a vital service for the community and people have come to trust us. Now I’m a journalist I’ve realised it’s the best job in the world!”
The role of community radios
When the refugees first began arriving in eastern Chad, there were many conflicts with the local population over access to water and firewood – many women were attacked or raped.
Families had lost touch with each other during the fighting in Darfur, and did not know where to access health care or education; Internews stepped in to provide a unique ‘Humanitarian Information Service’ (HIS). The three radio stations served as important communication tools by broadcasting in several local languages and carrying out sensitisation campaigns on behalf of humanitarian organisations.
“Before the radio stations arrived the only way people could communicate was by going door to door or by walking the streets with a megaphone,” explains Mohamed Ali Zidane, a resident of Goz Beida. “Now the radio can reach many more people than that and we trust that the information we hear has been checked and is factual,” he says.
Over the years, the radio stations have been involved in a number of innovative campaigns, including discussion programmes encouraging women to give birth in medical centres, public service announcements about upcoming vaccination days and some of Chad’s first ever interactive phone-in discussion programmes.
Lack of money challenges journalism
Chad is one of the hardest places in the world for a journalist to work. Lack of infrastructure, including electricity and telecoms is one major factor, as is money. Media is not a business that pays here – traditional models of advertising do not generate vast sums, mostly because businesses in Chad have yet to grasp the power of advertising.
State-funding is available for the media, but only amounts to about $2000 a year. Most of the country’s 34 radio stations are run by community associations and are effectively staffed by volunteers. The average salary for a journalist is around $150 a month.
“Money is a real challenge,” says Abdezerak Arabi the station manager of Radio Sila in Goz Beida. “We’ve decided that we will charge for all the services which we previously did for free. For example, a dedication will cost 1000CFA ($2) and a notice or sensitisation campaign for an NGO will cost 2000CFA ($4).”
Will they pay? I ask him as we chat in his office in a pre-fab container on the outskirts of the town, the diesel-fuelled generator, which alone uses about $1,100 of fuel a month, roaring in the background. “Yes we think so – I’ve spoken to the managers of the NGOs and told them there is no alternative. They all say they value the work of the radio and that it’s a vital and trusted community service. They know we can get messages to communities up to 70 kilometres away – that would be impossible if you had to go door-to-door to speak to people.”
Journalists face threats and other restrictions
Journalists in Chad have traditionally also faced a number of restrictions on their freedom to operate. In 2008 several reporters were arrested when they published articles about the disappearance of a prominent opposition politician in the aftermath of a rebel attack on the capital N’Djamena.
One of the country’s leading newspaper editors, Najikomo Benoudjita, was charged with defamation in 2009 after writing an article critical of a minister, and the Cameroonian journalist Innocent Ebode had his residence permit suspended after he wrote about France supplying arms to the government of President Idriss Deby Itno.
The situation has begun to improve in recent years, with the revoking in 2010 of the detested emergency press law ‘Ordonance 5’ which was put in place after the rebel attacks. Journalists were invited to a national conference on the future of the press in 2010, and a ‘Maison des Medias’ where journalists can meet, discuss and organise was opened later that year. Chad has moved up to 103rd place on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
However the challenges may still seem overwhelming to the former Internews journalists, who now have to manage all this without the support of an international NGO. Even the question of where to source radio equipment has become an enormous headache for the staff at Voix de Ouaddai in Abeche; at the time of writing their transmitter had been off-air for three weeks while a replacement was ordered from France.
Wandering past the slowly-emptying football pitch in the heart of Djabal refugee camp as the Sahelian sun drops below the horizon, Madjihinguem is still optimistic. “People tell us all the time that they trust the information we broadcast. We go and look with our own eyes and report the facts. That is very important. People rely on us and I will stay even if it means a bit cut in my salary.”
Celeste Hicks is a photojournalist with wide experience of covering African issues, having previously worked as the BBC’s Chad correspondent.