* Mauritian journalist Jean-Luc Mootoosamy, director of the Swiss-based consultancy « Media Expertise », gives an account of the production and broadcast process of topics related to migrants and migration in Senegal and Niger. “Le Mauricien” publishes an adapted version of his intervention at the « Media and Migration: Telling Moving Stories » conference organised by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS Media Africa) in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 30 May 2019.
Director, Media Expertise
It all began with a meeting at the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Headquarters in Geneva. IOM was running « Aware migrants », a communication campaign to inform potential migrants about the risks around irregular migration and the routes chosen by smugglers. As media expert, my role would be to accompany local media in Senegal and Niger in bringing accurate information to potential migrants which would hopefully contribute to save lives. In Senegal and Niger, radio was the best medium, and therefore judicious choice of media and the team was the key to success. Why the emphasis on radio in our smartphone era? Because access to radio, in these parts of Africa, is much easier. Video didn’t manage to kill the radio stars there…
I chose those who have a powerful footprint in community radios and private stations, and who, crucially, are trusted by their respective communities. In Senegal, I worked with 3 journalists whose radio stations were part of the largest community radio network of the country (Union des Radios Associatives et Communautaires du Sénégal). In Niger, I held workshops for journalists of a private station that is heard all the way from Niamey, the capital city, to Diffa which is close to the North East border of Nigeria.
My colleagues could not cover the migration topic due to the constraints expressed in these sentiments:
• Journalists were highly dependent on International organisations to get figures. Some said to me: « organisations don’t like to give us figures or data. They think we are not able to process these information. They give more easily to foreign correspondents! »
• Most of them were taking notes for Radio France International, the BBC and France 24, quoting these media while they were giving news about their communities from Dakar or Niamey.
• In some areas, migration is a taboo subject. No one speaks about it.
The language barrier
We started by listening to the material they brought in relation to migrants: audio, videos, clips and I asked them to select elements with news value. And news value, of course, depends to a large extent on the context: what has news value for me may not have news value for someone in Senegal or Niger… So there we were, looking for gems in a complicated treasure hunt. The language barrier was a personal handicap as I don’t speak Wolof and Hausa. Nevertheless, we paid attention to the voices, intonations and emotions. Our priority was to find elements related to irregular migration risks, and that tactic helped us to achieve our aim.
Based on these elements, I asked my colleagues to tell the stories of these migrants. My colleagues would give a voice, give a name (when they are allowed to do so) to those who are directly concerned by migration. We prepared stories about those who want to leave, parents who’ve sold everything they have to send their only son to Europe, we prepared portraits of those who succeeded and those who failed. My colleagues also worked on reports with smugglers, because in order to get the whole picture, their version, their side of the story also counts. We spoke about intra-African migration, which concerns a greater number of people than those who want to reach Europe. All this was done in local languages. After 5 days of training, the journalists were writing portraits. They were preparing diverse radio formats: debates, round tables, and audio clips to fit into these different formats. This had never been done before, and the natural excitement of attempting something new allowed us to obtain success stories and sad stories. For example, the story of Babou who lives in Italy and has built a career there. The story of Amadou who tried four times to reach Europe. On the first three occasions, he was sent back by the Italian authorities. « Even if I have to hide in a wooden box, I’ll cross the sea! », he said with determination. On the fourth attempt, Amadou tragically died at sea, a victim of his foolhardy determination and undiminished hope for a better life.
With the permission of his family, the interview was broadcasted, and reactions from the communities were immediate. From Dakar, I went to Kolda, which has the highest rate of young migrants, according to local organisations. After a 9 hour-drive and 700 km later, we met young people who hoped to reach Europe. Most of them had taken the decision to take a bus few days later. They said to me: « You white people… you are speaking about risks because you don’t want us in your country. There’s no hope here. » It was a heated discussion. When I told them about people losing their lives in the Mediterranean Sea, some would say: « Fake news! » I also remember someone arguing and saying: « It could be like the movie « Titanic ». Who says that what we see on TV is true? » Even if this was not an easy exchange, the young men accepted being recorded for a broadcast. After two weeks in Senegal and Niger, I was confident that we had done our best to not only inform people about the facts regarding migration to Europe, but also how dangerous it has been for many who have lost their lives.
A few months later, I went back to Niamey and my colleagues informed me that two or three times a week, young listeners would come with their flash disks or USB keys to download testimonies from migrants who shared their experience. These young listeners would share them via WhatsApp with friends who were about to « take the bus ». Saoudé, one of the female journalists, was extremely happy to report that she was receiving daily feedback from listeners. And she told me the story of a lady, aged 55, who sells vegetables. Her backpack was ready. She paid a smuggler for a seat to Agadez. The plan was to go to Libya where her daughter, her only child, would give birth to her first grandchild. That woman heard about the route made of dead bodies between Agadez and Libya, and decided not to go. I wanted to meet her. I wanted to hear her. Record her voice… Saoudé accompanied her to the radio station at 8 pm, after hours of negotiation with her family. Saoudé was my translator as the lady could only speak Hausa. I asked her if I could film her. « No way, not part of the deal », she said. So I tried to find a solution and I asked her if I could film her hands while she was talking. She accepted. This testimony had a huge impact in the community. People understood that the radio’s role was not to tell them what they should do, but to provide accurate information so that they have the possibility to make an informed decision.
« Migrants as Messengers »
My colleagues and I were proud of the feedback obtained with this new programming; radio had helped that lady, and maybe also other listeners to make an immediate choice. It meant that media can be trusted, when bare facts and the naked truth are presented to its listeners. This experience contributed to the next phase of IOM media campaigns called « Migrants as Messengers ». Migrants would interact with people who explore the possibility of leaving and would share their experiences, live. This direct exchange adds value in the process of informing populations.
I was born on an island built by migrants. Migration is part of my DNA – my ancestors came from India and I migrated to Switzerland. Did my background help in this mission? Probably. To be able to advise on these issues, it is a necessary condition to feel genuine concern. Today, we focus on migrants from Africa, tomorrow it could be anywhere else, closer to us.
Migration is not an issue that will die a natural death, because poverty and environmental damage to our planet means that despite the dangers, the lure to better climates and better jobs elsewhere in the world will always tempt the desperate to try to salvage some hope for their current predicament and miserable existence. Being in touch with realities of migrants and their families, as an expert, brought me to one conclusion: Migration is not an issue about « others », it’s an issue about us.