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Members of Somalia's hardline al Shabaab rebel group ride on a pick-up truck after attending Eid al-Adha prayers inside a football stadium north of the capital Mogadishu November 16, 2010. (Feisal Omar/Reuters/Feisal Omar/Reuters)
Members of Somalia's hardline al Shabaab rebel group ride on a pick-up truck after attending Eid al-Adha prayers inside a football stadium north of the capital Mogadishu November 16, 2010. (Feisal Omar/Reuters/Feisal Omar/Reuters)

Ignoring death threats, Somali broadcaster lets the music play Add to ...

How do you create a radio network in the world's most dangerous country, where war is raging, journalists are killed, and Islamic extremists have banned music, sports and women's voices on the airwaves?

If you're the organizers of Somalia's newest radio station, you ignore the death threats and defy the bans. You broadcast plenty of music and soccer matches - and you hire female announcers, too.

The new station is Bar-Kulan (the Somali phrase for "meeting place"), which this year became the first non-partisan radio broadcaster in Somalia.

Because it refuses to obey the extremists, its 50 employees must take precautions for their safety. They often use pseudonyms and voice-overs to protect their identities. And while the station has a network of correspondents across Somalia, along with an FM transmitter in Mogadishu, its main studio has been placed in neighbouring Kenya, where it can operate a little more freely.

Their listeners must be equally cautious. If they live in areas of Mogadishu controlled by the extremist militias, they often secretly listen to Bar-Kulan on earphones or cellphone radios, giving the impression that they're merely having a phone conversation.

"They could get into trouble for listening to us," says Farah Lamaane, program co-ordinator at Bar-Kulan. "They are warned by the extremists not to listen to Bar-Kulan, but they still do. They know how to survive. So they are listening quietly and discreetly."

Funded by the United Nations with a $1.7-million budget this year, the station has insisted on scrupulous independence, covering all sides of the conflict and refusing to take orders from anyone - not even the African Union military forces that guard the besieged government in Mogadishu. The military asked for three hours of daily coverage of its activities, but the station refused.

"Nobody can tell us what to broadcast," Mr. Lamaane says. "It's up to the Somalis. It's up to us."

In a country ravaged by war for the past 20 years, radio is the most popular medium. Somalia is still largely a rural society with an oral culture. Literacy is low, electricity is scarce, and infrastructure has been largely destroyed by decades of war. Radio has a long history in Somalia and it remains crucial to the national culture.

Yet radio in Somalia is under assault. The extremist Islamic militias have seized radio transmitters and shut down radio stations that they dislike. When they banned music this year, most radio stations obeyed. Some used the sounds of gunfire or car horns to replace music. Bar-Kulan was one of only two stations that refused to obey the anti-music edict.

For journalists, Somalia is one of the most hostile countries in the world. In past two years alone, 11 journalists have been killed in Somalia. Many people refused to accept jobs at Bar-Kulan when they discovered that it required frequent travel into Somalia.

There are many radio stations in Somalia, but most are loyal to local clans or officials, and some openly engage in hate speech. The government station, Radio Mogadishu, is seen as a propaganda organ that lacks credibility. Bar-Kulan, by contrast, covers the news on all sides, even the extremists. Its only rule is that it promotes peace, tolerance and reconciliation.

Launched eight months ago, Bar-Kulan now broadcasts 24 hours a day on FM, along with two hours a day on shortwave. It also offers live streaming on its website, mostly for the Somali diaspora in countries such as Canada. About a quarter of its employees are female.

Its music programming is drawn from a unique archive of about 6,000 Somali songs, ranging from K'naan (the Somali-Canadian pop singer) to more traditional songs. Much of its programming is youth-oriented, since nearly half of Somalia's population is younger than 15.

During the World Cup this year, Bar-Kulan was the only Somali radio station authorized to broadcast the matches. It was a coup that dramatically boosted its audience ratings, although its soccer announcers and analysts could not afford to travel to South Africa, where the tournament was played, broadcasting instead from the studio, where they watched the matches on television.

The station also carries a regular series of religious programs by Islamic leaders, including quotations from the Koran that emphasize the themes of tolerance and harmony.

The extremist militias are furious at the music, the sports and the female announcers on Bar-Kulan's airwaves. "All of us receive threats by e-mail and telephone," Mr. Lamaane says. "We just ignore it. Nothing has happened to us so far. It's in the hands of God."

The founding director of Bar-Kulan is a Canadian radio consultant, David Smith, based in Johannesburg, who previously helped to create radio networks in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. He jokes that the extremist militias in Somalia probably consider him "the Great Infidel." But he believes strongly that information is a human right - and in Africa it is usually radio that supplies it.

"Radio is king on this continent," he says. "These are oral cultures, and the infrastructure and people are poor."

Although it provides 16 newscasts a day, Bar-Kulan does not try to be too weighty. Music and sports are central to its programming. "In any war zone, people need to laugh and be entertained," Mr. Smith says.

In the future, Bar-Kulan aims to be a national public broadcaster, with transmitters across Somalia. It will use cheap cellphone communications - text messages from its listeners - to gather feedback and ensure that it is providing what Somalis want to hear.

"We can provide a platform for ordinary Somalis to express their feelings," Mr. Lamaane says. "Our ideas are purely from Somalis."

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