Experiences On Community Radio Development In Mali: A Journalist’s Notebook

November 23, 2010
9 mins read



Community radio responds to the needs of the community it serves, contributing to its development within progressive perspectives in favour of social change. Community radio strive to democratize communication through community participation in different forms in accordance with each specific social context


Distinguished friends, ladies and gentlemen!

I have worked as a Broadcaster and Journalist for the past thirty two years since February 1977, when I first joined the defunct Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation [NBC], as a Studio Manager Trainee. Subsequently I worked as an Announcer, News Reader, Commentator (Sports and Ceremonials) and Current Affairs Analyst;   I would later report for Radio France International, Radio Netherlands International and the BBC World Service before finally working as the pioneer General Manager of the Kwara State Television Service, between 1997 and 2002. I did not become a Print Journalist until I was appointed the Editor of DAILY TRUST newspaper in 2002, although I had written a column for THE HERALD newspaper during the mid-1980s and also written for several other newspapers over the years. I have given this background, in order to underline my epiphany with Community Broadcasting in the Republic of Mali.

In May 2006, The Institute of Media and Society and the Panos Institute sponsored me on a trip to study Community Broadcasting in Mali, as part of the effort to help open up the niche for the launch of Community Broadcasting in Nigeria. My radio background was crucial, since I started my media professional life within the ambits of radio broadcasting. I therefore did the trip within the certainties of my own professional development but especially carrying the baggage of my own assumptions about what broadcasting was like: its philosophy, its infrastructure and even the basically elitist assumptions within the settings of Nigeria and the international stations that I had reported for. When I travelled to Mali, the assumptions that I had about radio were transformed by my ten-day sojourn in that country.

The 1990s were an exciting period in the history of Community Broadcasting development in Africa. The political backdrop was of course the Sovereign National Conferences held in many of the countries of West Africa, long ruled by military dictators such as Benin and Burkina Faso or those coming out of colonialism and apartheid such as Namibia and South Africa.  These countries began to free the airwave and they promoted community broadcasting as part of the national broadcasting spectrum. In South Africa, for example, the post-apartheid government initiated a new broadcasting policy premised upon the hope that the broadcast media could assist the processes of national reconciliation and the building of a democratic and pluralistic society. The Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), a judicial body to help regulate the broadcast media was inaugurated in 1993. A new broadcast legislation that promote the provision of a diverse range of public, private and community broadcasting services on a national, regional and local level, responsive to public need, was similarly instituted.

This background of opening up the national broadcasting spectrum was followed in Mali, with a notable difference: in Mali, there was an uprising of the people against the dictatorship of Colonel Moussa Traore. The uprising led to a massacre of the people by soldiers. As I found out during my visit to Mali, a simple act of needing the broadcast space to make an appeal for the donation of blood to treat the wounded showed people that the national broadcasting system controlled by the government, was not available to the people for such an urgent need. On the contrary, it took a courageous appeal on Radio France International by a well-known local lawyer, for the appeal to reach the people. That bitter experience taught vital lessons about the need to break the monopoly of the state in broadcasting matters. Malians resolved that the broadcasting spectrum is a property of the Malian people and should therefore become democratized. Radio should be open to all Malians and that resolve led to the emergence of the Community Radio movement in Mali.

Modibo Diallo is long regarded as the father of community broadcasting in Mali and he was the pioneer head of the first community station in the country, RADIO BAMAKAN. He told me in Bamako, that after the overthrow of the military dictatorship, it became clear to the democratic forces in Mali that the output from the government-owned radio was mainly done in the French. These programs were irrelevant to the overwhelming majority of Malians who did not speak French. If democracy meant pluralism, the democratic forces were determined to ensure that the media were also pluralized in the new situation in Mali. The context of the period was also fortuitous for the forces angling for a plural media environment, because six months after the March 1991 overthrow of the military dictatorship, Mali organized a National Conference in Bamako. The National Conference settled the pattern of public affairs in Mali, and one of the major resolutions of the conference was that the access should open up for private participation in the media.

Modibo Diallo and his colleagues in the democratic movement went ahead to form the Bamako Free Radio Association (ARLB in the French acronym) in May 1991. The law about the radio movement was also explicit; if one belonged in the radio movement, you could not belong to the ruling body of a political party and you cannot use radio to promote political goals. With the formation of ARLB, members secured the basic minimum materials to start a radio station; these included 2 microphones; a 20 watts transmitter; 250 watts amplifier and a stereo recorder. In August 1991, RADIO BAMAKAN commenced test transmission, becoming the first free radio station in Mali. That was the commencement of what in real terms, was a major media revolution that is without equal on the African continent. The commencement of test transmission generated incredible excitement because people did not even think an alternative voice could be heard on the air waves. The premises of RADIO BAMAKAN, is a very modest building inside a market in Bamako. It was besieged by people and before long, it also received visits by agents of the state. The police sealed up the premises, arguing that it was not authorized to broadcast.

Modibo Diallo remembered that the closure of RADIO BAMAKAN angered the people sufficiently for the minister of communications to call a press conference to explain the reasons for the action. However, in the sweep of the democratic movement of the period, members of the ARLB attended the press conference and turned it into a debate about the laws regulating broadcasting in Mali. The extant laws about broadcasting regulation in Mali dated to 1936, and had not even anticipated FM broadcasting, which was the frequency of transmission of RADIO BAMAKAN. ARLB members also argued that the National Conference had recommended the promotion of pluralism in the radio sector and government was therefore obliged to allow radio stations like BAMAKAN. ARLB also added the clincher that they were a citizens’ association and not a political party, they therefore felt they were protected by the law to exercise their liberties.

The minister had wrongly interpreted the existing law to mean that broadcasting was a monopoly of Radio Mali, but even that was shown to be untenable. It was clear that the status quo could not be maintained, so an agreement was reached to temporarily suspend transmission while the state settled issues around the regulation of private broadcasting in the context of the democratic movement in Mali. Eventually, RADIO BAMAKAN was registered as the first free, private radio in Mali. It was allowed to broadcast at first, for 30 hours a week on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. At the same time, government began to adopt the legal codes to regulate private broadcasting. Four months later, the Presidential Order on the operation of private broadcasting was signed into law. The law gave Mali one of the most democratic radio legislations in Africa.

The nature of Mali’s legislation was confirmed to me by Moussa Keita the president of the Conseil Superieur de la Communication (CSC), the regulatory body for broadcasting in Mali. Moussa Keita told me that as of the period of my visit in May 2006, there were 380 radio stations in Mali, but as a matter of fact, the frequency pattern allows the possibility of having up to 2000 radio stations in Mali. Keita told me that the law which established CSC was enacted in 1992, within the context of the defeat of military dictatorship in 1991. The conditions to establish a radio station in Mali are very liberal indeed. No money is charged to establish a radio station; once one is Malian and has the basic sum to procure the equipment, then he or she can open a radio station. It is very democratic. Under Malian law, it is forbidden to arrest a journalist. If a journalist infringes any security legislation, the CSC is informed. A journalist can be arraigned in a court of law but cannot be arrested either by a policeman or a gendarme. As Moussa Keita told me, in Mali, “it is just not possible”.

The process of opening a radio is also very clear. The CSC boss said “You apply; we check the availability of frequency, by the CSC informing the Comite de regulation de telecommunication. If the frequency is available, then the radio station is allowed to use it, otherwise a new frequency is allocated”. No money is paid to start a station, but each year, a Frequency allowance of CFA 10,000 is paid by each station. Today community radio has become a most important part of Malian social life. These stations are owned by the people and they speak the language of the people in communities and have become a vital medium of community mobilization as I discovered in my trips around Mali. Yaya Sangare, told me that 90 percent of the radio stations in Mali broadcast in local languages and they get the community to be part of the plurality of the radio medium. As I have said here repeatedly, Mali was an epiphany for me and it was an experience that has strengthened my conviction that community-based radio can be a powerful instrument in the process of national development.

Mali’s radio format is also diversified. They have commercial radio and radio associative. Radio associative is further divide into (a) community radio (b) cooperative (c) confessional radio and finally the cultural station. There is also the public service broadcaster, Radio Mali. It is this diversified platform which makes Mali the center of Africa’s most exciting radio environment. The stations are organized into a body called URTEL DU MALI, which is the Union of Radio and Television in Mali. URTEL was set up in 1992, in the wake of the upheavals in the country and was formalized in 1995, with four original members: RADIO BAMAKAN, LIBERTE, KAYRA and RADIO RURAL DU KAYES. By 2006, according to the president of the body, Yaya Sangare, they had a membership of 178 radio stations. Sangare also told me that “Mali is a nation of oral traditions, so radio has helped in the expression of people’s origins as an oral culture. People accept messages of development easily in Mali, when they are set in the radio mode, thus facilitating the process of development”.


My Malian radio epiphany changed my original conception of what constitutes radio, which was formed within the radio context I was cultured within. In Mali, I saw how a functionally minimal amount of infrastructure can be used to produce radio. Malian stations are often located in buildings without any pretence about grandiose surroundings. The stations are often run by people in communities, with a few of them being permanent employees. Most of them use freelance contributors within their host communities as I saw in Segou, on the River Niger in upland Mali. The program fares have been made easy by the wide spread dissemination of mobile telephony, even in rural communities, which make it easy for people to take part in phone-in program formats. Most of these stations broadcast in local languages: Bambara, Sonhrai, Fulfulde, Tamachekh, Solinke, Malinke and in Gao there are many stations using the Hausa just as I found out in Bamako, that a sizeable Nigerian presence has led to the use of Hausa and the broadcast of Nigerian music in a number of stations.

I visited radio stations in Bamako, Kati and Segou, and was pleasantly surprised that these stations are able to function because the nation has relatively stable electricity and so there was no need for an outlay of expenses on the purchase of generators. In fact, a radio manager in Segou did not understand me as I tried to explain the difficulty of running a radio station in Nigeria and the expenditure pattern that is often skewed in the direction of purchase of diesel for generating sets! In Mali, I saw how a relatively poor country has opened the radio spectrum to the people and in turn the people have taken possession of the medium, in an experience that has no match anywhere else on the African continent.

On a final note, let me add that Community Broadcasting contains very exciting possibilities as Mali has taught. As a Journalist with a very strong background in broadcasting, I saw a lot that was positive in my travels in Mali; there are very useful lessons that we can learn in the context of the work that we are doing in Nigeria. But the most long-lasting impression I formed was that people in local communities can effectively deploy the medium of radio in their languages, to assist the effort to break the vicious circle of underdevelopment! This is what we must endeavour to actualize in Nigeria too. Thank you very much for your attention.

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