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Program 9916
April 20, 1999


Bill Siemering, NPR

Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

BILL SIEMERING: People forget that radio really is the most ubiquitous, the most accessible of all media in the world. And it is the most democratic in its dissemination and in its access, in enabling people to have a voice.

KEITH PORTER:This is Common Ground, a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.

KRISTEN MC HUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. This week on Common Ground, building radio communities.

[sound of Mongolian music]

PORTER: Bill Siemering has played an important role in the development of Public Radio in the United States. Now Siemering is using his communication skills to help foster democracy worldwide. Our Ken Mills has more on Siemering’s latest radio projects in South Africa, Mongolia and Macedonia.

[sound of African choral music]

KEN MILLS: Soweto, South Africa: you are listening to Soweto Community Radio, a new voice in a country that for years was dominated by state-controlled media. One of the people who helped create Soweto Community Radio is a man who helped create public radio in the United States, Bill Siemering. Siemering helped design, NPR’s All Things Considered and Fresh Air. He helped write NPR’s first mission statement. He managed several of public radio’s top stations. In the past few years Siemering has taken his skills and passion around the globe, working with George Soros’ Open Society Foundation.

SIEMERING: The Open Society Foundation or Institute is also known as the Soros Foundation. And it’s simple mission is, most cases, is simply to help foster democracy in an open society. That means strengthening schools and education, healthcare in some cases, and certainly media is an important part of that.

MILLS: Siemering’s work in South Africa shows what can be done.

SIEMERING: In South Africa is perhaps the best example because I started working there in 1993 when the Foundation opened. And in South Africa when they were going through the transition and they knew that was coming along, one year before the elections the very first institution in the country to be reformed was the South African Broadcasting Corporation. And they had hearings to appoint a new board of directors that would be more representative of the country as it is. And the following year they appointed a board to take care of the licensing, established the Independent Broadcasting Authority, which is like our Federal Communications Commission, and their first priority was to establish, award frequencies for community stations, to give a “voice to the voiceless” as they said at that time. And to empower the people that had never had a voice.

You have vast areas there of maybe a million people that have no communication. They had no newspaper or no radio. And so they felt that radio was going to play the most important role in a way of establishing democracy.

MILLS: One of the most important new community radio stations in South Africa is Soweto Community Radio.

SIEMERING: Soweto Community Radio is in this large township that has maybe 3 million people all told. And they have, thanks to our Foundation, they have a very good two studios and a control room, they have an excellent news staff. They have hourly news bulletins that alternate in five or six different languages. Because there are that many languages represented in the community. And then they have evening news program.

[sound of non-English news report]

SIEMERING: One of the remarkable things is that they also hold the politicians accountable. They had, prior to the elections, they had an open forum with all the different candidates in to talk. And after the election they do a Vox Pop with the community that they, people serve—the local council people—and then they bring them into the studio and they say, “Well this is what you promised. What have you done?” And they play the Vox Pop and then they also open up the phones for constituents to say, you know, “Our trash hasn’t been picked up,” or “You’re doing a really good job in cleaning up the community,” whatever it might be. So they get this feedback. I don’t know of any station anywhere that holds elected officials so accountable as they do there.

MILLS: Siemering feels editorial independence is a key to the success of Soweto Community Radio in a changing political landscape.

SIEMERING: Well, everything is quite politicized. And so this is terribly important. For example, in one community they, the union organizer was also Chairman of the Radio Committee, the radio station. And so this posed possible conflicts of interest. I think that has changed since then. But they are forbidden to have on the board people that are officials of a political organization so that is apolitical. And it’s just as important for people to be able to turn on the radio and be assured that the information is unpolluted as it is to turn on the tap and know that the tap water is unpolluted. I mean it’s really a sacred trust.

MILLS: Siemering talks about the impact and evolution of community radio in South Africa.

SIEMERING: It’s been very strong. The people are very engaged with it right from the start. In the beginning the community radio movement in South Africa, the people believed that everyone had a right to be on the radio. And that was the emphasis in some of the training before they went on-air. However, once on air they quickly heard from the listeners saying, “This presenter is not very good. We think he should be replaced.” Or “We’d like to hear more of the programming in Zulu and less in English,” or Tsanga or whatever it might be. And so they quickly changed from just free access to a more controlled editorial approach.

MILLS: One of the most innovative and important community radio stations in South Africa is Radio Zibeneli.

SIEMERING: Radio Zibeneli, that’s located in a township that would be called filled with shacks. The population is about 700,000 people, estimated only by aerial photographs. Radio Zibeneli is an extraordinary station. “Zibeneli” in Xhosa means “see for yourself.” Which is a wonderful idea. I mean, “We’re presenting the fact, you make up your own mind. Here it is, see for yourself.” And they operate, unlike Soweto Community Radio, they operate out of a truck container with one studio. And they have as the emphasis, is really upon this idea of self-help. They say, the manager says, “no on is going to come down from heaven and help us clean up this place or make it a beautiful place. It’s up to us.” And so the station sponsored a clean-up campaign, for example, and 8,000 young people came out and cleaned up on a Saturday morning. And they had Coca-Cola supply refreshments and a music truck and things like that. And the government supplied the trash truck and the bags.

They’ve sponsored tree planting Saturdays. They’ve had cultural awareness days where they’ll have the clothing and the foods and so on of different ethnic groups celebrated. And in the spring of the year all the students must take standardized tests and they bring in the best teachers they can find and the teachers do a summary of the year’s courses. And they attribute this broadcast to increased scores and better success on these tests. Some students that are just outside the coverage area come and sleep overnight so they can hear these programs. So that shows a great involvement with the community in a very active way. It really does affect people’s lives.

There’s health information and the mission of the station is to improve the quality of the health of the community. And by that they mean the cultural as well as the physical, emotional, so on. And because they are in the heart of the community they know whereof they speak. As they say, if there’s a shot in the community we hear it too.

MILLS: Making the transition from state-controlled media to an open, democratic media is a primary on-going effort for the Open Society Foundation.

SIEMERING: In other countries I think the emphasis is going to be also on assisting former state broadcasters becoming genuine independent public service broadcasters. They are so used to an ideological control and the characters have not changed so much. They may have changed their party label but in a lot of places it’s still the same mindset. And as somebody in state broadcasting in another country had said to me, “You know when you live with fear deep down inside you for 20 years it’s hard to ask questions.”

MILLS: One country where Siemering has worked extensively is Mongolia. Mongolia is just now evolving from years as a closed society.

SIEMERING: Mongolia is an extraordinary country for radio because it’s so vast and rural that it’s really the only medium that will work there. People forget that radio really is the most ubiquitous, the most accessible of all media in the world. And it is the most democratic in its dissemination and in its access, in enabling people to have a voice. And it’s also one of the most imaginative and because the pictures are in people’s minds. And it also fits beautifully with an oral culture, a story-telling culture, which is what we’re working in in most of these countries.

MILLS: A major concern of the Foundation is to create media outlets that promote the local cultures and offer alternatives to commercial radio, a mission that’s shared with Public Radio in the United States and Canada.

SIEMERING: It’s interesting, Ken, because in Ulan Bator the capital city there are five private stations that have come on-air and not one of them is doing substantive information programming. They’re all doing what we would call kind of pop music, MTV kind of hit radio. And this is due in part because 60% of Mongolians are under the age of 30. So it’s a very young country and their young people are involved in the radio. So they’re playing what they like. But I think this again underscores the importance of having responsible public service radio that will provide the information that the commercial people simply are not providing.

MILLS: Most radio stations are concerned with building audience. In Mongolia this has led to unique radio services.

SIEMERING: In Mongolia we were trying to help develop program service for nomads and as part of that they really don’t want Western music, as I understand it, on this service, as we develop it. And there’s great sensitivity to having the unique voices of the countries there. I don’t know if we can ever get away from keeping out all the American pop music that is so universally enjoyed. But at the same time it’s good to have the local music. I mean, here’s a sample of the way in which one of the private stations went out and recorded concerts in Mongolia.

[sound of Mongolian music]

MILLS: Bill Siemering has also been working in Macedonia, where community radio is at the grass roots of society.

SIEMERING: I was working with the Romany people there, which is growing to be the largest minority in Europe. And they too don’t have their own voice for the most part, in media. So people operate literally out of their homes. I visited a station that was literally a mom-and-pop operation with a son and daughter-in-law running the station in the basement of the house. And they’re playing Romany music and they also have news of the neighborhood and so on, which is literally right outside the door of course, so they’re very engaged with the community in that way. And they are speaking in Romany and in Macedonian both frequently and it’s a very kind of vital radio that is so very close to the grass roots.

MILLS: Siemering says there are important similarities between public radio in all countries.

SIEMERING: I think there are common threads. One of the most important things that we always begin with is a clear mission that informs all the decisions and is understood by all of the staff. And that’s what distinguishes community radio and public service radio from for-profit radio. Is the fact that we have a clear mission to serve a community, to serve the interests of democracy if you will, which doesn’t sound too high-falutin’, but it really is. You need somebody that’s going to try to bring people.

MILLS: Bringing people together via public radio has been Bill Siemering’s lifelong mission. He talks about how his own experiences inspire him.

SIEMERING: In the very beginning, the very first station in—broadcast station in the United States, was in, at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, and it was to extend the resources of the university to the people of the state. And actually I’m a product of that. I went to a two-room country school and listened to the radio to learn art and music and social studies and science. And so the original meaning of broadcast is to scatter seeds. And I love that image. It’s one that I think we still can use profitably. Because we really are scattering ideas. Some take root, some don’t. But it’s a wonderful nurturing kind of image for a community, to be scattering seeds, to be casting out ideas, information, the arts, so on. And enabling people to be nurtured by them.

[sound of African music]

Reporting for Common Ground, I’m Ken Mills.

KRISTIN MC HUGH: In a moment a visit to the Common Ground archive.

PORTER: Who would do this work if there was no High Commissioner for Refugees?

SADAKO OGATA: There has, no—nobody has that kind of a mandate. But for large-scale victims of conflict, during conflict situations, the International Community of the Red Cross does extend protection to victims. There are many agencies that give assistance. But there are few, very few, agencies that have a protection mandate.

PORTER: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

MC HUGH: With news of the Kosovo refugee crisis dominating headlines there is much talk about the role of the United Nations in caring for displaced people. For some background on this we visited the Common Ground archive and found an interview Keith Porter conducted with current United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata.

OGATA: A refugee is someone who crosses borders and seeks the protection of another country because he or she is no longer able to receive the protection of a state—his own state—on account of persecution, which is caused by political or religious or various group causes.

PORTER: Do you as the High Commissioner help people who are outside that definition of a refugee?

OGATA: Yes, very much more. This is the basic definition of refugees, who flees a country for persecution reasons. But this, and it’s on an individual basis. But there are today more people who flee on account of violence, gross violation of human rights, or for conflicts. But the basic definition of a refugee is someone who flees a country and crosses borders. However, in today’s world, for, because of conflicts there are many people who are in refugee-like situations. That is they are in their own countries but still because of violence or conflict they are no longer where they are. And they are usually known as internally displaced persons and there are several million internally displaced persons when we also give protection.

PORTER: Your mandate calls for the work of the High Commissioner to remain humanitarian and non-political. Is it sometimes difficult to remain non-political?

OGATA: Yes. Non-political in the sense that the reason why we protect, give protection to refugees is for humanitarian reasons. But you see a lot of the causes that force people to flee are political causes. So we do have to deal with political problems but solve them in a humane way.

PORTER: And what are the, what mechanisms can you bring to bear on any situation where there might be refugees involved? What are the things you can call upon?

OGATA: Well, whenever people who flee across national borders, immediately I do have the mandate to extend international protection or examine their cases; whether they merit international protection or not. So I would say I have a office in about 110 countries all over the world, including a lot of the industrialized countries. People come to seek asylum. And in most places there are asylum-examining procedures that the states have set up. But we do have some kind of a supervisory role to see that states do provide asylum to those who are in need. So we can intervene on behalf of refugees or asylum seekers.

PORTER: I know even in the United States we find that natural disasters are the things that are the most difficult to predict and to budget for, and it must be the same way in your position. You have no way to predict.

OGATA: We have no way to predict but there are certain cases of people whom we, who are likely to still require international protection. So about a third of our budget is considered to be general program that requires yearly contributions. So we have that; more predictable ones are under the general program. And then a lot of the unpredictable cases where we make special appeals every year.

PORTER: In the UN system who do you report to?

OGATA: I report to the General Assembly.

PORTER: I see. And what kind of staff do you have?

OGATA: We have about 5,400 staff all over the world, including all the local staff. And it’s quite a large office.

PORTER: I would say that the work you do is one of the more public faces of the United Nations. Do you agree?

OGATA: Yes. Because there is always a great concern to the fate of people and the fate of, especially, victims. And there is concern at the same, and since the fate of people’s lives are at stake I think there is a great interest in making sure that there is a body that takes care of them.

PORTER: I know that for many of us who cover the United Nations or who get caught up in the debates about budgets and resolutions, we forget that for most of the world, when they think of the United Nations they think of someone like you. They think of UNHCR.

OGATA: Well I am very glad to know that they think of us, because we represent one aspect of the UN. The United Nations covers a lot of things.


OGATA: But from the very beginning, my office was set up by General Assembly resolution in 1950, and then there was a statute, a convention on the protection of refugees which was adopted the next year. And my office has a statute, is on a statute, there is a statute that gives the mandate to the High Commissioner. The only thing that I can say is that it’s a very generous recognition of independence that has been given to my office. If there is a refugee, we can intervene. And without going through any inter-governmental bodies.

PORTER: Who would do this work if there was no High Commissioner for Refugees?

OGATA: There has, no—nobody has that kind of a mandate. But for large-scale victims of conflict, during conflict situations, the International Community of the Red Cross does extend protection to victims. There are many agencies that give assistance. But there are few, very few, agencies that have a protection mandate.

PORTER: What’s an average day like for the High Commissioner for Refugees?

OGATA: When I am at headquarters it’s very much like, I would say, working in an office. All day long there are lots of visitors. There are lots of internal meetings. And lots of telephone calls and so on from all over the world, trying to ask for decisions on various refugee-related problems.

PORTER: And then what about when you’re in the field? What is that like?

OGATA: Well, that is a very, I think I would spend about 40% of my time outside headquarters. It is not only going to the field where refugee, the refugee camps and visiting various asylum countries to thank them, but also to see what problems I have to solve. But also I have to visit capitals of donor countries, fundraising; so it’s quite a busy job.

PORTER: What was your position before this?

OGATA: I was Dean of the Faculty for Foreign Studies at Sofia University in Tokyo.

PORTER: I see. And did you have a particular interest in refugees?

OGATA: Not really, although in 1979 I was asked by my government, the Japanese government, to lead a team to the Thai-Cambodia border to see what kind of measures the Japanese could, the Japanese government provide for helping the refugees, Indochina refugees. And that was my first exposure. But I have been a delegate to the United Nations on and off since 1968. And I have been, as a delegate know what the problems were about refugees and the international cooperation with regard to refugees. So indirect familiarity.

PORTER: I have one last question for you. What is the one thing that the nations of the world could do to make the job of the High Commissioner for Refugees easier?

OGATA: One thing is to maintain, provide asylum to those who are in need. An asylum is also at stake not only in the industrialized countries, where they’ve, the feeling very much is that asylum-seekers are not really genuine refugees, but they may be migrants. And that they should be, and there is a restrictive quality towards foreigners. There is some kind of a xenophobic tendency in many industrialized countries. But in the developing countries the burden is very heavy. And because of heavy outflow of people. And so there is also the feeling that, Why don’t refugees stay in their own countries. So asylum is as stake and this is a great, of grave concern.

PORTER: That is Sadako Ogata, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

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