Bombs, Threats & Kanak Radio

This article was first published in ‘Islands Business’, Magazine November 1987. Author is David Robie. Copyright: David Robie Publishing Ltd, Auckland, NZ. Website: www.asiapac.org.fj

Bombs, Threats Don’t Stop The Journalists Of Kanaky

Bombs, sabotage, death threats and assaults are all in a day’s work for the staff of the fledgling radio stations and newspaper campaigning for independence in New Caledonia.

The three FM stations, operating in the capital, Noumea, the north-eastern town of Hienghene, and the Loyalty Islands, and the newspaper ‘Bwenando’ face formidible obstacles.

While they see themselves as the ‘free’ voice of Kanaky, they are portrayed by the French-controlled media as ‘revolutionary’ and trying to subvert the French Republic.

New Caledonia does not enjoy the freedom of press which is taken for granted in metropolitan France or in neighbouring South Pacific nations such as Australia, New Zealand and even pre-coup Fiji. Although there are few laws that curb the media, the nature of ownership means the mainstream media is heavily biased against the Kanak population which supports independence.

‘What passes for news here is often the parish pump view of bigots’ said a Noumea-based correspondent for a Paris daily. ‘It isn’t surprising that relations get strained between local journalists and correspondents for French and foreign newspapers.

One French journalist, Olivier Couhe, editor of the FLNKS-controlled regional government’s development magazine ‘Construire’ and correspondent of the Paris daily ‘Le Matin’ was recently savagely beaten up by three masked white vigilantes. Several Australian journalists, mainly television newsmen, were harassed and intimidated during the September referendum on independence campaign.

‘Bwenando’ and the Kanak radio stations exposed information which led last month to the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) filing a legal challenge against the ‘dishonest and anti-democratic’ referendum with France’s administrative court. Along with a long list of ballot complaints, the front alleged:

· a massive fraud in proxy votes. (voters were allowed to cast up to five proxy votes for absent or sick voters, and more than 3,000 proxy votes were made outside Noumea alone

· Vote-buying. (Proxy votes were claimed to be selling for between $75 and $150 each)

· Abuse of power and irregularities committed by the administration.

· Irregularities in the referendum campaign. · Pressure on citizens wishing to boycott the ballot.

· ‘Intimidation’ by French troops and paramilitary police around or in polling stations.

· Bias in the state-run media.

The only local daily newspaper, ‘Les Nouvelles Caledoniennes’, lurched further to the right earlier this year when it was taken over by the Paris-based Robert Hersant Group, regarded as the French publishing equivalent of Rupert Murdoch. Journalists regarded as too liberal were sacked and the paper took a more strident anti-independence line, effectively squeezing the FLNKS out of the news columns.

RFO, the state-run radio and television network, is also regarded with bitterness by Kanak independence leaders because of its alleged bias. When the major anti-independence group, Republican Congress Party (RPCR), started its own FM station, Radio Blue Rhythm, two years ago, the FLNKS was forced to launch its own media to present its own independent news and information.

With grants and assistance from a French-based support group, church and union groups in Australia, and the New Zealand overseas development aid agency CORSO, the newspaper ‘Bwenando’ and Radio Djiido were founded in Noumea last year.

Contacts were made with journalists and media technicians in Australia and New Zealand, and with Radio Vanuatu, to help train staff and get the media established. After the success of Radio Djiido (Signal, or Tom Thumb), whose low-power transmitter can only reach as far as Tontouta International Airport, Radio Maxa (North) was established at Hienghene and Radio Kenu (Messenger Canoe) in the Loyalty Islands.

The radio stations rely on the French news agency, Agence France-Presse, Radio Australia, and Radio Vanuatu for foreign and Pacific news. They have a network of correspondents for domestic news.

During the referendum campaign both Radio Djiido and Radio Maxa were subjected to jamming and sabotage. This was nothing surprising to their staff in the face of violent intimidation they have encountered since becoming established.

‘The anti-independence extremists will try everything they can to silence us, even kill us if they have to’ says Jacques Violette, one of the directors of ‘Bwenando’ (which means Customary Way). ‘Two bomb attempts have already been made on our premises in an attempt to stop us publishing. Death threats are common. And Radio Djiido faces the same thing. Our militants have to patrol the grounds at night to protect the station from attack.

Kanak aerial tower (Photo Credit: UNESCO)

Violette alleges French paratroopers sabotaged Radio Maxa a week before the referendum and he accuses the military high command of covering up the incident. Four journalists – two from the Sydney office of Agence France-Presse and two from the Sydney ‘Times on Sunday’ – were arrested when they went to Hienghene to investigate the sabotage.

They were seized by the paratroopers, handed over to gendarmes and then detained for two more hours. While General Michel Franceschi, commander-in-chief of French forces in New Caledonia, defended the role of his soldiers, President Francois Mitterand ordered an inquiry into the arrests.

The journalists were detained under article 78 of the Penal Code, which carries a maximum five-year jail sentence for people found guilty of making public, unauthorised military information. General Franceschi claimed the journalists had been in a ‘sensitive’ place involving ‘confidential defence’ information and where they were prohibited from taking photographs.

Violette, however, claimed the issue of the journalists had diverted public attention away from the ‘real issue’ – the sabotage of Radio Maxa. ‘An incredible silence’ he added.

Violette pointed out the paratroopers were guarding the Hienghene television and radio relay mast when the sabotage was carried out. Cables linking the tower and Radio Maxa were severed in three places. ‘It is obvious the soldiers were responsible’ he said. ‘They were guarding the installation. Nobody else could have got close enough to carry out the sabotage’.

On a hit list of anti-independence extremists, Violette prefers to keep a low profile over his work at ‘Bwenando’. He is among a select group of French-born or Caldoche (settler) pro-independence campaigners who are singled out by white vigilantes for terrorist attacks. Several have had their cars or homes firebombed; one has been assassinated. Violette is reluctant to make the job of his enemies any easier by being photographed. He also insists that whereas he edited the newspaper in its early days, now the editing is the responsibility of a Kanak collective.

‘I just help with training and advice now and do the accounts’ he saidin the cramped, secret office in the Kanak ghetto of Montravel.

In October 1985, right-wing extremists attacked the office of ‘Bwenando’. Shots were fired and the siege lasted almost all night. Radio Djiido called for volunteer militants to protect the office when police refused to provide protection.

The following month, a large bomb caused extensive damage in the building which housed the ‘Bwenando’ office. A strong wall protected the newspaper’s photographic darkroom, but the paper was shifted to a safer location.

‘Bwenando’ gives special attention to human rights issues and injustices over land alienation – issues that are ignored by the mainstream media. For example, it has extensively documented the cases of 33 political prisoners which are now being examined by Amnesty International. Among recent stories it has broken has been alleged widespread electoral fraud for the referendum on independence, and an expose on the rise of AIDS cases in New Caledonia. This is blamed on military conscripts who have served in Africa, but are not tested before being posted to the South Pacific.

A Kanak housing block. (Photo credit: David Ricquish)

Radio Djiido – The Voice of Kanak Independence in New Caledonia

By Kalinga Seneviratne.

(Orginally published by IPS, now reproduced here with kind permission of the author.)

NOUMEA, New Caledonia, Apr 1 (IPS)

Ten years since it first began broadcasting, Radio Djiido, the Voice of Kanak Independence, has seen more than its share of problems – lack of funding, jammed signals and Molotov cocktails aimed at driving it off the air.

Today, Radio Djiido – a station run by the indigenous Kanak people of this South Pacific territory – remains the voice of the Kanak struggle for independence against the French.

On a regular day the radio, the highest-rating station here apart from the French government-run RFO, broadcasts news and commentary that it hopes will educate the Kanak people in the run-up to a vote on self-determination in 1998. The station also promotes Kanak music, including a new form of contemporary music called “Kaneka” which was born out of the independence struggle and was popularised by Radio Djiido itself.

“When we started, the military tried to jam the signal. When we presented news, there was no radio,” said Nicole Waia, manager of Radio Djiido said in an interview with IPS. Although its mission is to be the Kanaky people’s voice, the station broadcasts news and commentary in French.

This use of the colonial language to further an indigenous cause might appear odd, but the reason is purely pragmatic – there are 32 different Kanak languages.

Waia said: “I come from Mare (Loyalty Island). I can talk to my people, but other Kanak people can’t understand me then. So we can’t present our programmes in Kanak languages, it’s too difficult. It’s a good strategy too, as other people can understand what I say.”

Since colonisation in 1853, the French have used the media in New Caledonia to drum up support for colonial rule. The media has been tightly controlled by the French, with French media tycoon Robert Hersant owning various publications and a radio station.

Radio Djiido’s creation in 1985 was the first attempt by the indigenous Kanak people to challenge French colonial propaganda, as they had no media voice of their own for a long time. Its early broadcasts were transmitted within the boundaries of Noumea by unskilled voluntary staff, driven by little else but political commitment to the independence cause.

The French expected Radio Djiido to have a short life span, especially since it during its first year it was targetted by right-wing groups opposed to independence. Even the French military joined in the campaign to end Radio Djiido’s broadcasts.

At one point, critics used bomb attacks and Molotov cocktails to try to silence the radio.

Today Radio Djiido has not only survived for over a decade, but broadcasts nationally and has two small sister stations in Lifou in the Loyalty Islands and Hienghene in the Northern Province.

Since the signing of the 1988 Matignon Accord between the pro- independence Front de Liberation National Kanak Socialiste (FLNKS) and the pro-French right-wing party, Rassemblement pour Caledonie dans le Republique (RPCR), Radio Djiido became part of the cultural arm of the Kanak independence struggle known as “Editions Populaires”.

“After the signing of the Matignon Accord, it is now better for us. We can now broadcast all over the country,” said Waia.

Radio Djiido gets funding from the local governments of the Northern Province and Loyalty Island, which are FLNKS controlled. It was also assisted by the Australian union movement’s foreign aid agency, or Australian People for Health, Education and Development Abroad. The RPCR has its own daily newspaper ‘Les Nouvelles Hebdo’ and a private radio station called ‘Radio Rhythme Blue’.

Radio Djiido’s plan since the Matignon Accord is to make economic development and education more equitable, preparing the Kanak people for a national vote for self-determination in 1998. That vote is a key part of the Matignon agreement.

“This is why it was important to have our own radio, to educate our people, and others too, on the political, economic and social reality” Waia added.

But the divisions among the Kanak community ahead of the 1998 vote is also affecting Radio Djiido’s economic future.

Recently, FLNKS changed its strategy from a purely political campaign to win a vote on independence next year, to an economic struggle to first gain control of New Caledonia’s nickel and tourism resources.

In the wake of this change, FLNKS’s attempts to work out a compromise with RPCR on the independence vote has split the Kanak community. Many Radio Djiido listeners want their leaders to explain to them the FLNKS’ change in strategy for independence.

But Waia says the leadership has been reluctant to use the radio to do so, and is pressuring the station to tone down its criticism of some FLNKS policies.

“Sometimes we have a lot of problems with FLNKS leaders, because Radio Djiido is a community radio station and we have to respect the people” said Waia. “When I don’t agree with what they decide now, I have to tell them ‘listen I don’t agree, you have to explain to the people’. It’s not my role, it’s your role because you are a political leader”.

This is why Waia wants Radio Djiido to be financially independent, though the station gets annual subsidies from the two FLNKS-controlled provincial administrations. The station is now aiming for a bigger slice of advertising revenue – not easy for a community-based news-oriented station.

“The grants from the provinces are not enough for all of us here” says Waia. “Our salaries are not high and have remained the same since we started. But it is not a problem for us because it’s our choice to come here and work for our people”.

Located in a small house in a southern Noumea suburb, the station has basic but modern studio and editing facilities and a small transmitter powerful enough to cover most of the country. There are no satellite feeds or other expensive communication technology. Its permanent staff of six are all Kanaky people.

Waia believes radio can play a very important role in the political process towards independence – if the FLNKS leaders know how to use it.

“The problem in this country is that the Kanak leaders don’t know how to use the media” argues Waia. “If they have confidence in the staff who works in the newsroom, I think the message they want to give could be understood by the militants and a lot of people”.

Postscript 2000:

New Caledonia has since voted to become independent of France, with a final referendum due as to the exact nature of the change which is scheduled for completion in 2010.

Radio Djiido continues to broadcast in Noumea on 97.4 FM.

Further material is being collected on Radio Djiido, Radio Maxa, Radio Kenu, Radio Rythme Bleu, Radio Joker 2000 (NRJ) and RFO New Caledonia for a major article on radio broadcasting in New Caledonia. In 1944, The American Armed Forces Radio Service also opened a transmitter in Noumea on 975 kHz which later became the key station for the Mosquito Network (article currently being researched).

Prepared: August 2000

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