Opinion: By Stanley Tsarwe
Given present challenges posed by Covid-19, there are plenty of reasons to argue for the establishment of community radio stations from very empirical grounds.
Countries the world over have long since realised the importance of community radio in fostering developmental community dialogue. In very broad terms, community radio is for, by, and about the community. It is broadcasting whose ownership and management is representative of the community itself, pursuing a social development agenda, and is non-profit. In essence, community broadcasting is at the heartbeat of social engagement and community development.
While it is a fact that Covid-19 is a manifestation of globalisation “gone wrong”, owing to the fact that its initial spread followed global networks of flows of people across borders, there is need for localised dialogues too. Under the dark cloak of limited knowledge of what is happening globally, rural communities are bound to suffer the consequences of globalisation and global flow of people (and disease) — events which are not of their own making. How do we minimise exposure to our rural communities? Community radio is partly the answer, and Covid-19 presents empirical justifications to make such arguments.
Community radio is even more critical now in the context of information gaps occasioned by the novelty of Covid-19 as well as the structural distance between scientists and the general populace affected and infected by this virus. We know that in Africa, the majority still live in rural areas compared to those in urban areas. In the context of all these challenges, what is the place of community media, particularly community radio?
In this piece, I make a critical plea that Zimbabwe needs community radio, and that this need is more urgent now than ever as society grapples with the menacing global and local challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the 2018 World Bank data for development indicators, 67,79% of Zimbabwe’s population reside in rural areas. Given that our national media has limited coverage to most rural communities, 68% of our citizens are potentially not aware of developments taking place among the scientific community, as well as developments related to this virus. Therefore, community radio can be a convenient tool for keeping rural communities informed and in dialogue among themselves about challenges faced. It connects the local to the global, and the global to the local.
Research has proved that radio remains one central tool for public discourse in Africa as it bypasses literacy barriers due to its closeness to African oral traditions. Radio is oral, and it creates a shared simultaneity of experience that underpins the formation of “imagined communities” and a sense of belonging. While listeners may listen to radio in the solitary confinements of their homes, or communally as a family, they are cognitively aware that they are part of a “community” of other like-minded listeners whose relationship is the shared discursive subject where people’s voices and imaginations converge in debate.
How do people in rural areas, particularly those in African rural communities, understand what social distancing is, for example, or get to know about the signs and symptoms of Covid-19? Is it not true that they may laugh it off at the mere suggestion of “social distancing” as not only an alien practice divorced from their communal spirit, but also as practically absurd? There is a lot of technical and scientific information about any disease which is obviously alien to rural communities, and it is the role of the media — particularly local media — to distill this information in layman’s language and idioms.
If rural communities operated their own radio stations, it would be easier for the government and its development partners to conduct health promotions at grassroots level. There is also reason to argue that community radio is a cheaper way for the government to get rural citizens informed about this novel virus.
People working at such radio stations can regularly be trained to break down (in local languages) the scientific jargon and medical terms associated with the virus. There is nothing as believable as local communities listening to their own known local opinion leaders advising them about how this pandemic is spread and how it can be prevented from further spread.
With the virus being fairly novel, pseudo-scientists and quacks have seized the opportunity to confuse the lay public — with misleading and conflicting information even within the supposedly “affluent” urban publics. They have also created a fertile ground for misinformation and disinformation. Social media has not been completely helpful — at least now — as it has been used to relay such quackery.
From previous experience in Zimbabwe, especially occasioned by such disasters as Cyclone Idai in Chimanimani, we were presented yet again with an opportunity to discuss why community radio is important in marginalised rural communities.
In 2019 when families were displaced by Cyclone Idai and when property and livestock were destroyed, affected communities badly needed different forms of solidarity, voice, compassion and emotional healing. Prior to the cyclone itself, and with the aid of early warning reporting, the cyclone could have been communicated earlier using community radio. This way, marginalised communities are kept informed about current developments. Even post the catastrophe, through radio, community members who lost loved ones and property would ordinarily have found solace and felt a sense of togetherness through hearing experiences from other members of the community who faced similar or worse experiences.
At the present moment, the challenges presented by Covid 19 across the globe — and indeed in Zimbabwe — requires that no one be left out in the information loop. There is need for continuous dialogue about this virus at all levels of society. There should be multiple dialogues taking place at the national down to the community cell level about this pandemic. Even though research has not been conclusive in terms of locating what was at the core of Zimbabwe and Uganda’s success in reducing the prevalence rate of the HIV and Aids pandemic in the early 2000s ahead of most African countries, in Zimbabwe we know that national media was critical in disseminating information about testing and prevention. How much would we have benefited had we had a more robust network of community radio stations preaching the same gospel in remote rural communities where lack of knowledge about such pandemics often exposed many unnecessarily?
Zimbabwe, together with Eswatini (an absolute monarchy formerly called Swaziland) are the only two countries in Southern Africa without a vibrant community media. In Southern Africa, the best models of community media is found in South Africa and Zambia.