A Discussion with Mouhamadou Barro, Founder of the Network of Journalists for Religious Information in Senegal
March 12, 2015
Background: Mouhamadou Barro knows the prolific Senegalese media well and sees it as a key, dynamic, and often overlooked vehicle of public information. A Senegalese journalist, his focus is primarily on religious media. He is the founder of the Network of Journalists for Religious Information, the goal of which is to bring a better understanding of religion to news reporting. Lauren Herzog and Katherine Zuk, WFDD staff, met with Barro in Dakar, Senegal during a research trip in March 2015. In this interview, Barro discusses how he began working with religious leaders, the landscape of religious media in Senegal and its audience, the types of programs that religious leaders produce, the formation of the Network of Journalists for Religious Information, and the importance of understanding religion in media.
Where did you grow up in Senegal?
I grew up in the Casamance [region in southern Senegal], where my father moved when I was 5 years old. I completed my first year of middle school there. I lived there for 15 years, I believe. Then, I lived on the Petite Côte in Mbour. I studied law for a year at university. Then I studied journalism, and conducted a lot of personal research and did some self-teaching. I’ve done a lot of that throughout my life.
How did you become a journalist? How and when did you become interested in this field?
At the outset, it was a personal project to exchange ideas and to engage in dialogue. I had my own show after university, maybe in 1997. Sometime after that, I worked as an editor; I was even an editor-in-chief in Mbour. I was then recruited by the first private radio station in Senegal, Sud FM and was the regional correspondent in Fatick. I then trained to be a journalist in school in 2009. I had already started to work in journalism and communication before I began classes.
What is your focus in your radio programs at Sud FM?
I host programs about development, society, and politics. I’ve spoken about land grabbing and the contribution of civil society. All my programs foster community consciousness. I have two types of programs now. I host political programs with leaders of the local governments. The program that I did in Mbour was like a court: everyone listened to it; even the police called me when I didn’t have a program since I often invited authorities. It was like being in court (with me as the judge). I would question them and they would give their opinions.
The other program focused on development. I invited women, organizations, neighborhood associations, those that aren’t normally in the media but who have something to add about what’s happening in their neighborhood—such as the environment, fishing, and other things linked to development. That was also in Mbour. I hosted it on Radio Dunya, my first radio station. I worked at Sud FM Mbour and then Sud FM Dakar, where I had a national program. I did not used to host any programs about religion, but now I get invited to programs about religion, especially those that are related to geopolitics, development, or journalism.
You work as the coordinator of the Network of Journalists for Religious Information (Réseau des journalists pour l’informations religieuse). What does this organization do? How was it created?
We created it in 2012. I am the founder, the initiator, and the coordinator of the network. It’s the first network of professional journalists who work on religious topics. In my daily research and my work, I came across an organization in France called the Association of Journalists of Religious Information (l’Association des journalistes d’information religieuse, AJIR), which was the first organization of professional journalists. It was created in 1920, if I’m not wrong. I thought that in Senegal, in Africa, religion is so integral that we can’t leave it to preachers only. In all editorial staffs, it’s preachers who discuss religion, not professionals. Whereas I’ve had the chance to learn more about religion, and not only Islam, since I was educated in the Casamance [a region in Senegal that is predominantly Christian].
In the Casamance, I had the chance to make Christian friends. I lived in the middle of Muslim-Christian dialogue. That’s become a strength of mine. I told myself that I was going to create a network in which I could include Christians, Muslims, and professional journalists. We’re going to do it with the objective to teach ourselves more about religion, not only to study either Islam or Christianity or to create a confusing mixture. The purpose is to analyze conflicts well, because here, many journalists have jumped to the conclusion that the conflict in Mali is a religious conflict. However, if you study the causes of such conflicts in depth, it’s not religion, but often politics, economy, or a geostrategic issue that causes them—even if religious causes are emphasized or manipulated for political reasons. These are really delicate questions.
What motivated you to establish this network which serves as a link between religion and media?
I did it because I could offer something to journalists. Often, people consult me with problems or for speeches. If they want training, I invite professionals to provide it to them; often I invite experienced journalists who know Islam throughout the world. I’ve brought in a journalist who, since the wars in Afghanistan, has written a book on Sheik Tourabi of Sudan, who has traveled to Angola and Mali, and who came here to do a training session. We’ve done other training sessions on cartoons and others on journalistic intentions. The objective was to make professional Senegalese journalists interested in religion, since, in their treatment of religion, they create a confusing mixture and cause frustration.
When I created the network, Christians that I met told me, “It’s good that you created this network because every time we read a newspaper, we see journalists making stupid mistakes, since they don’t understand the ideas. They confuse Christianity and Catholicism. They use slogans, concepts, and terms that they don’t understand.” So that’s why we created the network.
Are there others that work with you at the Network of Journalists for Religious Information?
Yes, we have an office and a secretary general who works at Radio Sud FM. We work together and organize training series. We’re hosting a training session tomorrow actually. I suggested some members of the network for this training session on the methods of journalistic investigation. It’s a group that organizes and that uses a method which leads journalists to be able to do research. We have a group of journalists that are going to participate, some of whom are members of the network.
Religious leaders evidently have great confidence in you since they call you often. How have you established this relationship with them?
First of all, it’s personal. It’s my open-mindedness and my connections. Secondly, I’ve built a certain legitimacy, thank God! It allows me to position myself as a leader and someone who is knowledgeable. I can easily invite people who I don’t know to events simply by calling them, encouraging them, making remarks to them, and responding to their invitations. I maintain these relationships, not with everyone but with most, and not only with religious media figures but with other media figures too—whether cultural, artistic, or musical media figures.
I know all of them, especially those who promote civic values, not only religious values. Also, if a program is good at educating youth about the dangers of drugs for example, I’ll participate in that as well. So essentially, I participate in programs about societal phenomena, development, or religion. I even follow Christian programs and I call those who organize them to meet them and exchange with each other.
What topics do religious leaders discuss most often in their programs? Are there any controversial subjects or subjects that the hosts try to avoid?
They address everything, but mostly focus on religious topics (prayer, how to pray, and how to fast) and Islamic morals (how to be a good Muslim and how to behave well). These are the themes that they analyze. For a while, since about ten years ago, there were other religious themes of reflection on international issues—such as geopolitical questions, international affairs, and economics. Thus, they’re moving away from preaching and shows solely about dogma.
Here, we have two types—an elaboration of the news and controversial or sensitive subjects sometimes proposed by the hosts. They talk about the economy, society, sexuality, and women. There are no taboo subjects; especially in Senegal, religious hosts have a certain leeway in the media. No one imposes a topic on them; they talk about subjects of their choice. It’s unique here. At all of the other stations, the editorial staff decides; but for religious matters, in certain editorial staffs, the head of the religion department is not a professional.
Take for example a large media group where the head of the religion department isn’t a professional. He manages the radio school, he does religious programs, and he manages everything that involves religion. That’s what distinguishes religious media in Senegal.
You know the Muslim side of media in Senegal well, but you also deal with the Christian media. Are the topics discussed by Christians the same as those by Muslims?
It is important to remember that there are not only Catholics here, but also Protestants and the evangelists. Their programs don’t focus on dogma either. Sometimes they air sermons, but they also air emissions about society, often on Saturday or Sunday. On RFM, for example, they have topical debates where they invite one or two guests—usually a priest or a layperson—to discuss current events.
What is the influence and the scope of the Senegalese media on the population?
There is a lot of media in Senegal. Thanks to liberalization, there are a lot of radio and television stations that the Senegalese like to follow. Many listeners follow preachers who have their own shows. Some have become big stars that are well liked by their listeners. Some use the media to teach their religion.
Another interesting fact is that we see “fan clubs” of people, mostly youth or women, forming around a preacher. They have conferences and they meet each other, and even during Ramadan they follow their programs. Radio channels will pay certain preachers very well when they have a big audience on the radio or television and thus impact the business plan. It’s a reality.
How have these show hosts succeeded in attracting youth and women to the level of having fan clubs? Are these groups hard to reach? Or is it because of the subjects they choose or their approaches?
I think that it’s more the approach than the subjects that attract those groups; it’s their demeanor. The most beloved preachers are the most open-minded and least severe, because Senegalese are very open. They’re those who deal with the topics that interest them but add a little humor to their preaching. So the recipe of the most popular programs is theatrics, plus open subject matter and an open-minded host. Women like female preachers because they want to hear a woman speak knowledgeably about Islam since many of them have not had the chance to study Islam themselves. They feel more inclined to listen to female preachers.
I also believe that if the preachers, whether male or female, have an appealing attitude, care about their appearance, wear nice clothing, speak well, and want to be loved, then they charm people. Beyond all that, being appreciated is a strategic concern, even for economic reasons. If they are appreciated and they have their own projects, people will give them money and participate in the construction of schools.
I recently heard a famous preacher, Iran Ndao, being asked by a journalist how he could help as many people as he has. He responded, “All I do is call my friends who have money, I tell them that we need to build this or that school, they give me the money, they give me cement, and I build.” So that’s also a reality.
A majority of hosts on radio or television shows are men; are there many female hosts or even adolescent hosts?
There are a lot today. At first, women were invited to shows, but now they have their own shows! The station that began this trend is Radio Dunyaa, which has a particularly large number of women, especially young women. The pioneer, who is now deceased, was unique because he had taken the name Ben Bass, a Saudi scholar. He wasn’t really a religious leader, but he opened his radio station to women.
He first opened an Islamic school at the radio station, where both young men and women could study Islam. He produced shows, which he soon opened to women, especially women in Islamic organizations—such as Jamatou Ibadou Rahman. Women began to have their own shows or at least participate in them. Now it’s common at all radio stations to find a woman or two who have good resumes, and who may even speak French or are intellectuals. Even in localities, shows are run by women.
Are there any radio or television hosts who use provocation as a strategy to attract an audience?
Not in Senegal. Maybe certain people are austere, for example, someone who never laughs on his program, who’s severe, and only talks about hell. These people don’t have a big audience or following. They’re aware that people don’t appreciate them, so they either change rapidly or else they just acknowledge that not many people will listen to them.
You gave the example of Oustaz Iran Ndao, who’s involved in constructing schools. Are there a lot of radio or television hosts who are also involved in community development?
A lot of hosts are engaged in other activities because they’re often committed to many things. For example, they participate in Islamic organizations, they run a school, they teach, or are leaders in the education system. For the most part, they have the time to commit to other activities. They went to school, but didn’t find a great job in their field, so they came to the radio to offer their services in spreading the message.
What are Muslim-Christian relations like in the Casamance?
In the Casamance, there are two regions where dialogue efforts are very advanced; it’s not even a dialogue though. The word dialogue assumes that it’s structured and well-developed, when it’s actually just a natural process there because of the population’s diversity. In the Casamance, Muslims live next door to Christian families. We are integrated. We play soccer together. The two regions in Senegal with a lot of Christians are the Casamance and the Petite Côte. And God arranged it such that after leaving the Casamance, I would come to Mbour in the Petite Côte.
There is a similar cohabitation in the Petite Côte. When I left the Casamance, I lived in a neighborhood called Mbour Toucouleur, which was inhabited by the Toucouleurs. But just next to it there was a Christian neighborhood. We played together and we shared. It’s a question of life, it’s about people who live together. It’s not planned, it’s not political, and it’s not a political dialogue where you must ask to speak. They simply are together.
There are many other countries where Christians and Muslims live side-by-side, but they don’t experience the same peace that is prevalent in Senegal. In your opinion, why is Senegal unique?
For me, it’s mainly that Senegalese Islam has always been an open Islam, one that isn’t focused on difference. It’s not only Islam. We also have been lucky, maybe as a result of colonization, to have been in contact with Western culture early on, and Senegalese have assimilated Western culture, France, and Christianity. Many Senegalese wanted independence but they didn’t reject France and French habits. Certain municipalities were French municipalities; our university [in the Casamance] was a French university.
We were also “lucky” to have had Léopold Sédar Senghor [Catholic president from 1960-1980] as our president, and I say lucky between quotation marks because Senghor was an open-minded individual who collaborated actively with Muslims. We had Muslim politicians who founded parties years before independence, but it was never a point of divergence. Each community experienced their own dialogue due to their cohabitation. There are also family connections in some places. There are Muslims who were previously Christian and converted to Islam or married into the religion. Within the same family, there are both Muslims and Christians. It’s natural. Islam in Senegal is not divisive.
Do you work with any other organizations?
Yes, I was an active member of the Association of Muslim Students in Senegal (l’Association des élèves et étudiants musulmans du Sénégal) in 1994. It is a very receptive and open-minded organization that works in schools to promote Islamic values. I had grown up in a devout Muslim family. I have now worked in this organization for 20 years, but I also work in the Islamic Congregation of Senegal (Rassemblement islamique du Sénégal)—an organization founded by the Association of Muslim Students in Senegal—and other organizations that aren’t solely in the religious sector, but also in the development sector. Seeing as we work on social welfare, we also created mutual insurance funds from Islamic finances to aid the poor and others.
Right now, I’m still involved with that, but my main work is consulting. It’s in this way that I work with a Turkish organization called Tolerance, Solidarity, and Amity Act (Acte Tolérance Solidarité Amité, ATSA) which is a center for cultural and scientific dialogue, for which I am an advisor. I organize conferences on the dialogue with development organizations, except that they don’t do anything political or anything that relates to radicalism.
In this organization, I coordinate all the conference with university or high school students and development organizations. Recently, we hosted an organization of senior citizens. We also have a conference for the Diaspora Union (Confédération de la diaspora), which brings together Senegalese living outside Senegal. I also have other tasks as the communications consultant, which I do in my spare time.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Regarding the media, we are continuously working towards a better understanding of religion, because some of the unprofessional discourse poses a threat. We also have to keep hoping that editors collaborate with preachers. We entertain this hope because, for example, I recently heard some preachers talking the Charlie Hedbo affair, defending the terrorist acts, saying that the magazine had attacked the Prophet. There is discourse that gets out of control in the interreligious sphere as well. There are people who talk about Christians with controversial words. These are the things that we have to watch out for.
Unfortunately, our authorities are usually politicians who aren't very involved with these issues, even though it is good to consult or converse with the media figures. But this doesn't often happen. Among our editorial staff, the heads of the religion bureaus rarely participate in the meetings where we discuss and evaluate their discourse. In the investigations that I did about the radio, someone told me that he tried to understand the work of his leaders, but the others have no idea what the host meant. That was in Ziguinchor [in the Casamance], and they acquired this habit because there had been a crisis in the region. In the most difficult times, since it's crucial to control the discourse, they adopted the habit of asking the host the planned topics and guests for his show two or three days in advance. It’s true that you shouldn’t exaggerate either.
Even for other shows, for example sports or the economy, often no one asks anything. For my political shows, I have to introduce who my guests are, but I don't think that the religious shows have this expectation. First of all, those who are managing radio stations don't know much about religion. They don't understand what the host says, so they don’t question them. I don't know what could encourage the confréries to develop their own radio stations. People need to reflect and anticipate what could happen tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow the confréries—and even other religious traditions or certain ethnic groups like the Halpuular or the Sereer—can develop their own radio stations. There already are some stations that promote culture; the state needs to follow these stations, not outlaw them, and to create a legal framework and initiate a dialogue.
Unfortunately, in Senegal, the media isn’t involved as an actor in development. Media figures sit on the sidelines. I'm not sure whether the Poverty Reduction Strategy (le Document stratégique de réduction de la pauvreté) takes the media into consideration. The media doesn't participate in the development of the national language or in literacy. There are a lot of non-educational programs, like music shows. All of that needs to be rethought.