By Alyssa Mesich
April 2, 2014- If good information is not available then rumors will spread. The weak media culture in South Sudan continues to fuel the ongoing conflict because of limited legal protection for public broadcasting, media regulation and freedom of information. Additionally journalists face safety concerns, restrictions on what issues they can report, and limited funding and training.
Accurate news coverage has been difficult to obtain, allowing warring parties, responsible for countrywide atrocities, to escape accountability for their crimes. The media sector in South Sudan needs to be strengthened to promote accountability and transparency of all parties involved in the conflict. This can be done if pressure is put on President Salva Kiir to sign the package of media legislation and if there is a national effort between the government, bilateral organizations, national media groups and journalists to promote countrywide news reporting. Increasing the availability of reliable information will decrease the spread of rumors, improving cross tribal communications and peace building.
Since independence the government has cracked down on the media through the harassment of journalists and the use of fear to limit the spread of information, according to journalists who wish to remain nameless. Just this month, according to the Committee to Project Journalists, the Minister of Information Michael Makuei tried again to limit news coverage by warning reporters not to interview opposition groups or else risk arrest or expulsion from South Sudan. The legal uncertainties in South Sudan make journalists more susceptible to threats and abuse by the authorities. The signing of the media legislation package by President Salva Kiir will establish a legal framework that protects journalists and media outlets. Implementation of the media laws will be another issue, but passing the media legislation is the first priority.
South Sudan will be celebrating its 4th Independence Day this July. As the world’s youngest country it is difficult to build up a media sector on par with the rest of the world- the U.S. has had over 200 years to build its media network. Additionally, South Sudan has experienced some setbacks, such as the closing of the journalism program at the University of Juba. But national and international development groups have met setbacks with coordinated efforts. The Association for Media Development in South Sudan (AMDISS) and Association for Media Women in South Sudan (AMWISS) are offering trainings focused on long-term capacity building for journalists. These national organizations having been partnering with bilateral organizations, such as the Norwegian People’s Aid, to increase the number of journalists trained and to improve the media sector through coordinated efforts focused on skill building.
There have also been coordinated efforts in the media field by UNESCO, Fondation Hirondelle, BBC Media Action, Internews, AMDISS and AMWISS to work together for regulatory changes and advancing the field of journalism. The Ministry of Information has been involved in some of the capacity building efforts, including a Media Sector Working Group, and their participation is important to ensure the safety of journalists and having a dialogue on pressing national media issues.
The ongoing conflict has disrupted the growth of South Sudan since independence. South Sudan is facing development issues along with the struggles of being a young nation. Only 37% of the population is literate, based on responses to a 2013 South Sudan National Audience Survey by Internews. How can literacy and education improve for the next generation if, according to the UN, over 1 million people have been displaced? Is the literacy rate going to take a similar path to GDP, which according to the World Bank has had a negative 47.6% growth rate in 2012? The conflict has had devastating effects on the South Sudanese today, but it will continue to be felt for generations to come if something is not done.
Peace talks in Addis Abba continue to be delayed and there is no promise that they will lead to reconciliation. Although it will be difficult to do, it is in the government’s best interest to promote a healthy media field because it will improve the development of the nation and will be a major factor in ending the conflict. Media is a tool that South Sudan can use now to facilitate peacekeeping. If the government works with bilateral organizations and national organizations it can pass the media legislation package, increase the safety of journalists and a focus on promoting accurate news coverage.
The writer is a holder of a Masters of Public Administration in Development Practice Candidate 2014, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University