This Magazine

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Reporting the news, building the nation

This Magazine Staff

Before Shock Waves came a 30-minute short called Umiaq Skin Boat which followed a group of Inuit elders building the first Umiaq (a traditional skin boat) in the community in 50 years. Boat-building being only so riveting, we also get some tall tales of survival from the elders, reminding me of an incredible book, Uqalurait: An Oral History of Nunavut. (For more arctic facts and some self promo, check The Walrus’s arctic issue’s special arctic facts gizmo.)
Shock Waves is a harrowing celebration of a network of radio stations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) called Radio Okapi. Of course, the story’s heroes are the reporters themselves, followed around as they put themselves in ever more precarious situations (though we get to see them drink beer and debate governmental incompetence too). And yes, there is footage of a dangerous encounter at a riverside military checkpoint shot with a secret camera.
But it’s much harder to watch one of Okipa’s journalists interview a woman brave enough to recount being raped by a soldier. Five years after the official end of combat (in 2003), sexual violence continues to rage. The reporter asks her if she’s had an HIV test since the rape. She says no. He offers to help her procure one. For a long time she looks down silently as her baby nurses. But she won’t agree. She says she’s afraid. According to the doc, 25% of the women raped in the DRC contract HIV.
The station is actually Congo’s largest, with eight branches spread across the country and funding (now expired) from the UN and a Swiss journalism foundation called Hirondelle. The UN, which at its height had 17,000 peacekeepers in the country, also provide the reporters with much-needed security. Emerging from a massive civil war, journalism is the right profession if you’re looking for death threats. Or the chance to build a nation.

One reporter says, “We have a historical role to play, helping make sure that social change can happen.” Absurd as that would sound coming from Peter Mansbridge, in the DRC these reporters literally provide a voice for the voiceless. The doc also makes a lot of hay about the fact that in a country as vast as Western Europe but with little movement between regions (aside from the 1.5 million internally displaced), a truly national radio station is playing a huge part in the forging of national unity and identity. There’s a sense that Okipa is providing for the Congo what Benedict Anderson, in Imagined Communities, believed the newspapers did throughout much of the rest of the world–a common narrative digested at the same time of day, allowing people who have never met to feel almost as close as neighbours.
The two are playing again Sunday at noon at the ROM. After wiping away your tears of frustration as you try to make it through the Sunday Star without unlearning too much, this is where to go if you want to see journalists earning their liquor money.
Tomorrow I review The Demons of Eden. Stay tuned!

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