African Arguments by Martin Plaut

No-one who has worked for the BBC World Service, as Keith Somerville and I have, will need to be reminded of the power of radio. It was the voice of Charles de Gaulle, urging the French to resist Nazi tyranny that helped convince its people that the fight was not lost.

More recently the interview with the ZANLA commander, Josiah Tongogara, by the legendary BBC Africa Service editor Robin White, ended the Rhodesian war and saw the birth of Zimbabwe.

But as the example of Rwanda so tragically proves, radio can also be used to terrible effect. The broadcasts by Radio Mille Collines whipped up sentiment and – as the UN tribunal in Arusha ruled – played a vital part in the 1994 genocide. Three of its executives were jailed for their part in these broadcasts.

What Keith Somerville’s crisply written, carefully argued book does it to put these journalistic observations into a comprehensive, academic framework.  He is in a particularly fortunate position to consider these questions, having started his career with the BBC’s monitoring service, which listens to radio stations around the world, going on to become a producer with the World Service and then – in 2008 – moving into academia.  To write the book he not only conducted the extensive literature review one might expect of an academic, he also went to Kenya to conduct interviews with a range of participants and observers in the elections of 2007 and the post election violence that left around 1,500 dead and 660,000 displaced. It is this mixture of detailed archival research and first hand accounts that is the strength of this book.

After a comprehensive account of the origins of propaganda (and who would have thought it can be traced to Assyrian atrocities carried out in the first millennium BC) Somerville moves onto the twentieth century.  His account of the fascinating use of radio by an obscure American Catholic priest makes compelling reading. How many now recall the work of Rather Charlie Coughlin and his apparently innocuous broadcasts on the Shrine of the Little Flower? Yet from a tiny base Father Coughlin became one of America’s most persuasive mass orators, purveying a noxious mixture of home-spun wisdom and neo-fascist propaganda, until he was finally banned from the airwaves.

After introductory chapters, Somerville takes three case studies of the use of radio in Nazi Germany, Rwanda during the genocide and in Kenya in 2007-8.  Of these the first two are well known and the chapters deal with the material with authority. The third – the Kenyan case – has not been as well covered and it is here that Somerville really breaks new ground.  He looks, in particular, at the role of the vernacular radio stations which broadcast in languages other than Kiswahili and English.

The story that emerges is of a vicious election campaign, with the opposition contesting the outcome. There is, of course, little new about this in Africa, but what was novel was the influence that political parties were able to exercise via the radio stations they controlled.  Soon radio stations like Kass FM which was controlled by the Kalenjin leader, William Ruto, began broadcasting inflammatory material. Sadly, this was not captured by BBC Monitoring, which stuck to monitoring the mainstream media rather than these vernacular radio stations.  Why this was the case is not clear, but it left a hole in the evidence.

 Read more…