There can be no peace without development and no development without peace.

Report of the UN Secretary-General, September 2013

As the media strives to uphold freedom, independence, and professionalism in a digitalized media environment, the world comes together on February 13 every year to mark World Radio Day. On this day, we celebrate the unique power of radio across the globe. This year’s theme was “Dialogue, Tolerance, and Peace.” This essay focuses on talk radio in Kenya as a medium for empowering local discourse and action on peacebuilding. It examines how audiences’ interactions through radio impact peace at the local level. While marking World Radio Day, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres acknowledged that radio remains the most commonly used communication mediums and is “a powerful tool that continues to promote dialogue, tolerance, and peace.”  The engaging and interactive nature of talk radio, as noted by Jessica Gustafsson, contributes to behavior change among audiences, stimulates debate, and increases civic engagement and mutual understanding.1Jessica Gustafsson, “Community radio as promoters of youth culture” in Media, Empowerment and Civic Engagement Among East and Southern African Youth, eds. Thomas Tufte, Norbert Wildermuth, Anne Sofie Hansen-Skovmoes, Winnie Mitullah (Gothenburg: Nordicom, 255–268.

The discourse about peacebuilding on talk radio in Kenya focuses on ethnic tensions rooted in perceived historical injustices connected to competition over access and control of land, power, and wealth.2Jerome Lafargue and Musambayi Katumanga, “Kenya in turmoil: Post-election violence and precarious pacification” in The general elections in Kenya, 2007, ed. Jerome Lafargue (Nairobi: IFRA, 2008). Such ethnic tensions produce political, economic, and social violence in Kenya. Despite the media being accused of promoting ethnic animosity in Kenya in the past, some radio programs, particularly talk shows and phone-in programs aired on various stations around the country, have provided platforms for people to express their views on public issues that affect them.3Charles Ongadi Nyambuga, “Media, Ethnicity and Conflict,” Peace Review 16, no.4 (2004): 486; Joyce Omwoha, “The Political Significance And Influence Of Talk Radio Debates In Kenya” in Political Influence of the Media in Developing Countries, ed. L. Lusike and J. Macharia (IGI-Global, 2016).

I focus on talk radio because it promotes public participation in conversations relevant to local and national peacebuilding, including those reflected in Kenya’s Vision 2030 Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution (PBCR) program. Vision 2030 also includes the following objectives: to “promote tolerance and peaceful co-existence among all Kenyan communities” and to “establish and operationalize a policy and institutional framework for PBCR and early warning mechanisms on social conflict.” It also aims to institutionalize peacebuilding and conflict management processes, country-wide PBCR, and civic and stakeholder dialogues. These goals will involve multi-media platforms devoted to the regular transmission of peace messages through electronic, print, and broadcast media. Through its vision 2030 agenda, the Kenyan government, seeks to promote awareness about international peacebuilding, focusing on the United Nation’s new “sustaining peace” agenda which aims to reduce violence in fragile and conflict-affected countries while building more just, inclusive, and resilient societies.

The foregoing institutional framework, as well as the need to promote harmonious interethnic relations, suggests that radio’s popularity should be put to good use in Kenya by embracing inclusive political discourse for peacebuilding and democratic governance. Participation enables community members to engage in discussions relating to issues of peace.4Devon Curtis, “Broadcasting peace: An analysis of local media post-conflict peacebuilding projects in Rwanda and Bosnia,” Canadian Journal of Development Studies 21 no. 1 (2000): 141–166. It is therefore imperative that the ongoing debates on radio promote peacebuilding as a key aspect of sustained development in Kenya. In Kenya for instance, radio successfully promoted peacebuilding during the 2007/2008 post-election violence by broadcasting the line “Peace above All,” muting the coverage of post-election violence, and “preaching” peace messages in their broadcasts. South Sudan radio stations have also been applauded for being key players in peacebuilding:

I stand here today, to let you know how proud we are, for the role the South Sudan radio stations have been playing over the years and especially in providing a platform for reconciliation and peacebuilding during the turbulent times…We are fully cognizant of the challenges you have faced in playing this important role, challenges related to your safety, media freedom, balanced reporting, high levels of self -censorship, yet you have chosen to put your lives on the front line to save humanity.

Salah Khaled, UNESCO Representative to South Sudan

Ethnic and social conflicts in Kenya have led to the loss of lives, internal displacement, destruction of property, and poverty. Talk radio can play a constructive role in reversing apathy, interethnic tension, and help consolidate peacebuilding in Kenya. It can also open up space for addressing gender inequalities and empowering youth and children to play more proactive roles in sustaining peace. Jambo Kenya, a Kenyan talk radio program which airs on Radio Citizen, has strived to engage leaders in peacebuilding as a means of conflict prevention and supporting social initiatives aimed at reconciliation and harmonious co-existence.

In seeking to achieve sustainable peace, radio producers in Kenya ought to apply ideas drawn from principles of peacebuilding in designing show formats. Talk radio programs should not only focus on content aimed at creating social change but also explore genres such as comedy, music, in addition to hosting special guests likely to advance a peacebuilding agenda. The government should work with media houses and civil society organizations to organize advocacy and peace campaigns through talk radio. I propose that such efforts should consider focusing on the seven functions of the civil society in peacebuilding as described by Thania Paffenholz:

Protection of citizens against violence from all parties; Monitoring of human rights violations, the implementation of peace agreements, etc.; Advocacy for peace and human rights; Socialization to values of peace and democracy as well as to develop the in-group identity of marginalized groups; Inter-group social cohesion by bringing people together from adversarial groups; Facilitation of dialogue on the local and national level between all sorts of actors; Service delivery to create entry points for peacebuilding, i.e. for the six above functions.5Thania Paffenholz (ed.), Civil Society and Peacebuilding: A Critical Assessment (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2009), 5.

Since the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) replaced the Millennium Development Goals, countries have embraced SGDs, including goal 16 which highlights the peacebuilding process. SDG 16 aims to reduce all forms of violence and work with governments and communities to find lasting solutions to conflict and insecurity. Through the goal 16 agenda of peace, justice, and strong institutions, popular talk shows in Kenya, such as Jambo Kenya and Brekko, proactively work for reconciliation by fostering a culture of mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence. Both programs’ content focuses on human rights issues, citizenship, issues concerning service delivery, impunity, regional imbalances, fair elections, land reforms, health, poverty, institutional and legal reforms, nepotism and tribalism, uneven distribution of resources, youth issues, unemployment, and civic education, among others. They also focus on inclusive development and educating their audiences about peacebuilding.

In conclusion, the Kenyan government should focus on the wellbeing of citizens and actively promote policies that support the independence and diversity (in terms of ownership and programming content) of radio stations across the country. The laws regulating broadcasting should also support the establishment of new radio stations, diversity, research, and media practitioner training programmes that build capacity in conflict-sensitive reporting and the development of high-quality radio content capable of consolidating local and national efforts to sustain peace and development in Kenya.

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