Doctoral student David Conrad’s paper “Freire Would be Disappointed: An Exploration of Liberation, Ownership, Power and Community Radio in East Africa,” received second place honors in the recent Global Fusion conference.
Following four-months of field research (2010) this study provides a space for grassroots voices – through 40 in-depth interviews from four communities in East Africa – to shape academic discussions and to question the role of the media as a liberator of marginalized people. Central to this discussion is the current model of international donor ownership of community radio in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania; the critical studies scholars’ allergy to the influences of political economy in explorations of community media; and a return to the guiding ideas of Paulo Freire’s liberation theory and seminal Pedagogy of the Oppressed book, which often serves as a strategically interpreted wellspring of reason for the efficacy of community media. The interview participants – local villagers/shopkeepers, community radio managers and staff, scholars and donors working in the region – argue that the starting point for liberation and democratic communication begins before the construction of any radio tower; a neglected reality in discourses on alternative/community media. With local ownership conceptualized as a frustrated dream, their stories illuminate a broken process of resistance –an unequal shift in power – that begins as a transformative movement away from the forces that originally marginalized them, but frequently ends up only reinforcing the insufficiencies within their communities and themselves.
This study argues that the donor-funded construction of a radio tower in East Africa constitutes an act of false charity, and encourages a shift in thinking within the development communication discourse away from oversimplified rhetoric – of community radio being community owned and providing a voice to the voiceless – toward a more spirited exploration of what it means to be community owned and to provide voice. When does citizens’ media become liberating? If a voice doesn’t have the ability to challenge the forces that marginalize, then what transformative service does providing voice really achieve? This paper argues that communication is not simply about making noise – agency is not just about talking – it should also provide marginalized communities with the tools they need to not only understand the World, but to change it; while the current donor-driven model of community radio in East Africa is providing the marginalized with a microphone, it is not providing them with a transformative voice.