The media in Sudan are hindered by poor training and a lack of resources, and journalists are struggling to keep citizens adequately informed ahead of several important events in the country’s history. Under the terms of a peace deal that ended more than 20 years of war between rebels in the South and the government in Khartoum, a census is supposed to be held soon. It’s to be followed by elections in 2009 and a referendum in 2011, when Southern Sudanese must decide whether or not to secede from the North. In the fifth part of a series on the media in Sudan, VOA’s Darren Taylor reports on future opportunities for this crucial sector.
Media advisors familiar with the environment in Sudan say it doesn’t make much sense to establish newspapers in Sudan, especially in the South.
“There are no reliable figures available, but most estimates say literacy levels in Southern Sudan are no more than 20 per cent. The vast majority of Sudanese cannot read and write,” says the manager of Sudan Radio Services, Jeremy Groce, whose broadcasts reach Southern Sudan from Kenya.
He continues: “And there are so many different languages in the region – so even if people could read and write, you’d have to print newspapers in lots of different languages – and that’s assuming there’s even a written form of that language.”
There are also few roads by which publications can be distributed across Africa’s largest country, which is prone to extreme weather conditions, such as heavy flooding during the rainy season.
“Newspaper distribution is an extreme challenge: getting them out into rural areas is impossible at the moment. Some areas in Southern Sudan are only [reliably] accessible by air. The expense of getting newspapers out is very high,” says Groce.
So many are convinced that the future of Sudan’s media industry lies with small community radio stations.
“It’s much easier with radio to try to break things down in a simpler way, because you’re just talking to people, and if you can talk to them in their own language, then that’s especially effective,” Groce explains.
“Radio is a much more reliable, less expensive, more accessible way to get information out to people and you can do it in many languages; people don’t have to know how to read and write. You can cater your programming to a variety of education levels. We have some programming here that is very simple, that’s designed to talk to people with virtually no formal schooling.”
Joan Mower, of the US government’s Sudan Programs Group, which advises the Southern Sudanese authorities, says, “Like most of Africa, radio is the number one way in which people in Sudan get their news and information.”
She’s convinced that it’s “absolutely essential” for the international community to “jumpstart the process of getting the media into the hands of the people of Sudan.”
Mower maintains there’s a “great movement across Africa for popular call-in FM stations. We’ve seen it in places like Ghana and Senegal, where FM call-in shows have played a huge role in making sure that elections have been fair and free. I recall an incident in Senegal when there was an incident at a polling booth where there were allegations that people were stuffing the ballot boxes and acting illegally. Callers called in to the radio station, which promptly sent out a reporter to the scene, and all of a sudden things were back to normal, and there were no more irregularities reported.”
Mower says a “culture of speaking out and being fair is taking root across Africa” and she sees no reason why this also shouldn’t happen in Southern Sudan.
All over the world, she says, community radio has been “extremely important in empowering people – giving them an opportunity to run their own radio stations, and giving them a voice, and getting programs to them that are unbiased and present both sides of the story.”
Mower also points to Mali – another extremely impoverished country – as an example that Sudan can follow in terms of media development.
“In Mali there’s a culture of press freedom that’s really quite astounding. They have no press laws; they really allow open, fair discussion…. And so I see (a system like) that as an option (for Sudan). South Africa also has a strong culture of community radio and it’s worth getting advice from them, too.”
But Mower acknowledges that the Sudanese media in Sudan are no different to that anywhere else: they must make money in order to survive.
“You can’t, in my opinion, develop a really strong, viable media until you have financial independence. There’s a great quote from a famous writer: ‘There’s only a free press for the person who owns the press.’ The real challenge is going to be getting up and running newspapers, radios, televisions, that sustain themselves, that are independent and then can afford to be free and then to report the news impartially and in an unbiased way.”
But veteran Sudanese broadcaster Elmigdad Gebril isn’t as optimistic as Mower about the immediate future of his country’s media industry. In Northern Sudan, he says, “red tape is stifling.” Although he says the authorities in Khartoum often invite people to establish newspapers, radio stations and TV networks in Sudan, in reality its “almost impossible” for private individuals to accomplish this.
“Practically it’s very difficult to get through the bureaucracy. And you will have to be serving some institutions in the government to be able to get a license, or not to be harassed or targets of security forces,” Gebril says.
“For private individuals, it’s very tough and almost impossible to get a license, unless you can convince officials you will act in a way that will protect their power.”
Gebril adds that “one should never give up hope, but I think things are going to get worse for everyone – including journalists – before they get better. Even if we implement the CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement) fully tomorrow, many years of pain lie ahead with regard to rebuilding the South. And we still also have problems in the North, and we have the Darfur conflict, and this mix is pretty complex. There is no magic solution in sight.”
But Dave Peterson, of the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, says there are positive developments in Sudan’s media sector.
“The National Democratic Institute (a non-profit organization based in the United States) has actually distributed 260,000 of these wind-up radios in the South. Between distribution of all these radios, and establishing community radio stations throughout the South, I think there should be a lot more possibility for people to get the information they’re going to need,” says Peterson, who’s been traveling to Sudan to analyze the media there.
He acknowledges there’s room for great improvement in the media sector.
“I would hope that very soon the government in the North relaxes its control of the broadcast media and that radio is allowed to proliferate and broadcast freely, that journalists are not arrested or harassed, that their work is not censored, and that Sudan enjoys a free and vigorous media environment. I think it’s quite possible; it’s just a matter of finding the political will for it.”
Deng Deng Nhial, a spokesman for the Government of Southern Sudan, says the Southern authorities are committed to establishing a “free media.”
“There are laws that are being written in order to encourage the media, and also 10 FM stations that have been opened already. The government is providing funds to individuals who would like to start an FM station.”