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Fighting Covid-19 using the airwaves

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GEARED—A journalist (right) interviews an official on the sidelines of the workshop

With coronavirus disease (Covid-19) sweeping across the globe and geared to choke economies, it is becoming abundantly clear that broadcasters have to adjust their programming to address the exceptional challenges that the pandemic poses.

It is indisputable that the radio has become a critical source of information about the pandemic to both rural and urban communities who do not have access to internet and newspapers.

In rural communities, not only are radio stations a trusted source of information, but they are often the only source of information.

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Hence, the job is more demanding for community radio stations, which usually shoulder the duty to keep their targeted audience informed during this period and bring their concerns to the fore.

“Community radio stations are serving as key sources of information and a bridge between the community and the authorities in government during the coronavirus crisis. It is therefore important that their programming should aim at creating awareness, prevention and safety of local communities,” said Ollen Mwalubunju, National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Trust Executive Director.

He made the remarks during the opening of a capacity building workshop for community radio stations and Nice staff members on Southern African Development Community (Sadc) regional integration and Covid-19.

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He said apart from fighting myths, misinformation and rumours that are spreading like bushfires about Covid-19, community radio stations are also responding to the crisis by creating a platform for communities to access information and public services in times of the crisis.

“Nice, being a grassroots organisation, has always noted that the grassroots are always left out in accessing information. Community broadcasting has emerged to help fill this major communications gap, and to enable these groups to access basic information that can help them to improve their situations, and to articulate their concerns and attract the attention they need to address them,” says Mwalubunju.

Malawi, being one of the countries with fragile health systems and in rural communities where even basic healthcare is sometimes hard to reach, the reality of Covid-19 is evident.

And for rural communities, community radios serve as the only source of information.

And, like the rest of the nation, broadcasters are also adapting to a new reality of living under the threat of Covid-19.

Mwalubunju says it is against this background that Nice organised the workshop to enable radio producers and Nice officers gain knowledge to assist them come up with messages and programmes content on Covid-19 and Sadc regional integration.

He emphasised that when it comes to Covid-19, oftentimes the only way people will believe new information is if a trusted source shares it.

“This, then, forms the heart of any definition of community broadcasting, namely broadcasters, which are distinguished from public service and commercial broadcasters in as much as they are specifically tailored in their design and function to serve the voice and information needs of rural, grassroots and/or minority groups,” he added.

Recently, Théophile Nébié, Head of Programmes at Radio Loudon in Sapouy Township in Burkina Faso, observed that since the announcement about Covid-19 outbreak in that country, radios had become hotcakes as communities need information about the disease.

“The people of the villages have only the radio to inform themselves,” said Nébié, adding that reliable, consistent, and comforting radio is a platform where trusted voices can convey important messages from sources people have perhaps never heard from before.

Mudziwathu Community Radio in Mchinji is one of the radio stations, which have been airing special Covid-19 community-oriented and community-produced programmes since the announcement about the disease in China in October 2019.

John Palichesi, a producer for the station, said they are closely working with the Mchinji District Council in the fight against Covid-19 and promotion of regional integration between Malawi and Zambia.

Palichesi disclosed that the station has, over the years, built trust between the locals and the council authorities.

“Mchinji is one of the districts in Malawi where illiteracy remains a big problem. Therefore, radio messages on Covid-19 and regional integration play a key role in sealing an information gap on the two topics,” he said.

A senior reporter at Nkhotakota Community Radio, Ausi Chabwera, observed that for most rural communities, radios mean everything in their lives right from farming and staying food secure.

It is also a source of information to parents on how to continue educating children now that they are home from school, or even gendered topics — like addressing rising rates of violence or forced marriages as girls no longer attend school and families are now stuck at home during quarantine.

“However, we are usually resource-challenged to make a significant contribution to awareness raising about Covid-19 and Sadc regional integration. We therefore request that the government, development partners and Nice should consider supporting us so that our programming responds to the emerging issues,” Chabwera says.

But Nice National Programme Manager, Gray Kalindekafe held a different view. He said in asmuch as his organisation appreciated the need to provide adequate support to community radio stations, there is a need to de-commercialise civic education about Covid-19 and regional integration.

“The primary goal of our broadcasting should not be money, but to raise awareness at all cost. We want to see a de-commercialization of Covid-19 education. We want you to be innovative so that even in the absence of funding, community radio stations should be able to come up with programmes that will contribute towards raising awareness about the pandemic,” said Kalindekafe.

Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Eisenhower Mkaka, urged Nice District Civic Education Officers and representatives of Community Radios to work with the government in fighting fake news and disinformation about Covid-19.

Mkaka said through messages that promote preventive measures to the masses in Malawi, the nation will be able to combat the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I would like to encourage you to localise the messages and present them in very creative and innovative ways so that the local masses are able to understand and benefit. They should be able to take advantage of opportunities available under the Sadc regional integration process and that they should be able to observe all the measures recommended fighting against the spread of Covid-19,” said the minister.

Mwalubunju stressed that Nice had come up with capacity building workshops in all the regions to empower communities with knowledge on Covid-19 and Sadc regional integration.

He said the trainings workshops aim at evolving community radio stations into a vibrant community media sector that will create space for dialogue and interrogation of key issues of immediate and special relevance to the community, whether of a social, cultural, political, and economic or other nature.

In his remarks, the Chargé d’Affaires for the European Union (EU) in Malawi, Ivo Hoefkens, said training of personnel of the community radio stations in Covid-19 and regional integration is extremely important in that it help Malawi effectively collaborate with other countries in fighting the pandemic.

Hoefkens stressed that the battle against the pandemic goes beyond the capacity of each nation and that is why his union is keen to support Malawi’s efforts to contain the disease.

“We are proud to support this initiative. It’s extremely important for us because we are trying to collaborate with Malawi in the fight against this pandemic because this problem goes beyond national context,” he said.

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