In a remote village of Mali, West Africa, there is a cotton farmer today who understands how important his village radio station is to keeping democracy alive. During a visit to Mali March 13-25, Oklahoma Farm Bureau staff person Sam Knipp saw first hand the role journalists play in keeping citizens informed, a vital component of a healthy democracy.
Knipp, Vice President of Corporate Communications and Public Relations, was one of 10 Oklahoma journalists participating in a U.S. State Department program focusing on the role journalists play in a successful democratic government. The program was coordinated by Oklahoma State University’s Department of Agricultural Education, Communications and Leadership.
“Because they are a vast, rural country with a 70 percent illiteracy rate, Malians rely heavily on radio broadcasts for their information,” Knipp said. “Information is the key to keeping a democracy alive. If citizens know that information is accurate, they place greater trust in their government.”
Mali’s road to democracy started in 1960 when they were granted independence from France. It picked up steam in 1991 when they elected a president in their first free and open election. Subsequent elections have been successful at every level of government.
"Our goal is to identify and train Malian journalists,” Knipp said, “and enforce the importance of reporting accurately.”
Agricultural journalists were selected because agriculture is Mali’s main industry. Cotton is their number one export.
The Oklahoma journalists traveled to a rural village in southwestern Mali where they visited with local farmers and viewed the village radio station. The station, housed in a small, cinder-block building, was built with funds from an American Christian organization. Like farmers everywhere, the Malians expressed their worries about the weather, crop prices and high fertilizer costs.
"They specifically asked about cotton subsidies for the American farmer,” Knipp said. “Try explaining the very complex agriculture program and the World Trade Organization to a group of remote African villagers who don’t speak English, and you quickly understand the difficult task staring me in the face.”
But don’t get the idea these farmers were detached from world affairs. Practically everyone had a cell phone and a radio. As the American ambassador to Mali said, “They have one foot in the 17th Century, and one foot in the 21st Century.”
The group also visited with numerous Malian government officials, USAID officials and a variety of Malian radio, TV and newspaper journalists.
The second phase of the project is to bring 16 Malian journalists to Oklahoma to study our methods for delivering information to rural areas. Oklahoma Farm Bureau will host two Malians during the month of July.
The Oklahomans will return to Mali in December to follow up on the training and further evaluate the project.
In addition to Knipp, other team members included Dwayne Cartmell, project leader and OSU Assistant Professor of Agricultural Communications; Shelly Sitton, assistant project leader and OSU Associate Professor of Agricultural Communications; Craig Edwards, OSU Associate Professor of Agricultural Education; Lora Young, OSU graduate student; Jeremiah Allen, OSU graduate student; Terry Clark, head of the Journalism department at the University of Central Oklahoma; Jim Hynes, Sam Houston State University business educator; Rob McClendon, Executive Producer, Oklahoma Horizon TV show; and Rachel Hubbard, KOSU-FM, public radio station in Stillwater, OK.