“We Are Global” is a new series on the Commons featuring interviews with Global Integrity’s far flung staff of journalists, researchers and advocates. This series will highlight our colleagues’ work “in the trenches” as they pursue anti-corruption reforms in their communities.
What’s the power of one voice? And what’s the power of one voice with a radio station? Grace Githaiga is finding out.
Corruption is commonly publicized in Kenya with fraud, bribery and waste constantly front and center in newspaper spreads. While the cycle of corruption doesn’t seem to be slowing, the Kenyan public has recently shown increasing levels of intolerance for political elitism. In June, President Mwai Kibaki announced a cap on the vehicle allowances granted to senior government officials after continued public outrage over politicians driving state-purchased Mercedes. Last month, the Kenyan parliament voted to remove Aaron Ringera, the head of the anti-corruption commission, from office due to public frustration with the commission’s low prosecution rate. Many Kenyans are asking, “Why haven’t any “big fish” been caught?”
Corruption issues are not only being debated in the Opinion and Editorial sections of newspapers like The Nation but also on community radio broadcasts. Last month, I spoke with Grace Githaiga, a Global Integrity collaborator working on the upcoming Global Integrity Report: Kenya. Meanwhile, Grace’s work with EcoNews Africa has helped bring community-radio shows to new prominence in Kenya.
Kenyan media’s rising third sector
Grace spoke with pride of her involvement with community-based radio, a newcomer to the field of media in Kenya. The first community-based radio station was established in 2004 by a group of rural women aided by EcoNews Africa. The organization’s concept is that community-based radio stations provide, as Grace put it, “an enabling environment” through which under-resourced communities can share what education and tools they have. EcoNews describes their relationships with local stations as “partnerships” to recognize that the community members themselves drive much of the decision-making process. While the community members dictate programming content and manage the station, EcoNews Africa advocates for funding for their eight partner stations. In 2008, EcoNews won national-level recognition through legislation that identified community-based radio as a third and distinct media sector in the country. Grace sees this as a first step towards the continued expansion of community-based radio stations across Kenya.
Grace lists agriculture, nutrition, health and corruption as the top programming topics at EcoNews’ partner stations. Kenyans see corruption impacting their lives in just as fundamental a way as HIV/AIDS or innovations in farming techniques. Although many of the corruption-focused programs center around the local manifestations of corruption, they are not limited to reports of petty corruption such as police bribery—macro-level resource distribution debates and national corruption scandals are discussed just as frequently.
“Things that are not going right in the community”
The strength of these programs comes from their accessibility to the public, says Grace. The abundance of cell phones and radios, even in small villages in Kenya, makes it easy for all community members (farmers, police officers, politicians) to both call in and listen to the shows. Grace says that many of the community-based radio stations have even coordinated informal types of social audits. While these “audits” are not carried out in any standardized way, the station has been able to successfully collect stories of resource mismanagement which have then be reported to authorities. For example, one corruption program based out of a Nairobi slum is called (roughly-translated) “Things that are not going right in the community.” This year, after callers complained that people were siphoning electricity from newly installed street lights in their township, the police were sent in to cut the illegal cables and protect the new lights.
Grace also attributes the success of these local corruption programs to their ability to be independent of direct political influence. Grace claims that in the commercial radio sphere, political influence and censorship are common. (See the Global Integrity Report: 2008 for more on Kenyan press freedom.) Because community-based radio stations are shielded from any direct political influence, they can typically voice more direct commentary.
This week, former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan publicly criticized Kenyan leaders for dragging their feet when it comes to institutionalizing accountability reforms. He called on the Kenyan public to be vigilant in their calls for change, saying: ‘When leaders fail to lead, sometimes we have to make them follow.” Community-based radio could provide an ideal forum for increasing the Kenyan public’s push-back against political elitism. While the stations’ potential for national-level penetration is still unknown, the successful campaign to increase street-lamp reliability provides just one example of their undeniable impact.
— Norah Mallaney
— Images courtesy of Grace Githaiga, pictured above.