Sudan is on the threshold of momentous events in its history. A peace agreement in 2005 ended more than 20 years of war between rebels in Southern Sudan and President Omar al-Bashir’s government in Khartoum. The deal provided for elections to be held in 2009 and for Southern Sudanese to vote in a referendum in 2011 on whether or not they want to remain united with the North. But, with a lack of good journalism in Sudan, many observers feel the Sudanese people aren’t being adequately informed and prepared for the important events that are set to happen. In the fourth part of a series focusing on media in Sudan, VOA’s Darren Taylor reports on the priorities for the country’s journalists.
Those involved in media training in Sudan say it’s essential for local journalists to receive instruction as soon as possible in how to report on political issues.
National elections, which under a 2005 peace deal between the North and South are supposed to be free and fair, are scheduled for 2009. Before this happens, though, a population census must be held. And then in 2011, Southern Sudanese are expected to vote for or against secession from Khartoum.
John Tanza, an experienced Sudanese journalist, says the country’s media should already be “intensively” involved in educating the public about forthcoming events. Yet he says there’s little evidence of this.
“There are some journalists in Sudan who don’t even know what’s in the CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement),” says Prof. Mahgoub El-Tigani, of the Sudan Human Rights Organization. “It’s more than two years since the document was released. How can they educate the public if they themselves remain ignorant?”
Tanza says, “Today, there are places where the people don’t even know what the CPA’s all about. Now whose duty is it to disseminate the CPA? It’s our duty to disseminate the CPA!”
Ladu Jada Gubek, a Southern Sudanese civil rights leader, teacher, poet and journalist, agrees that the media’s first priority should be to “eliminate all the confusion” among his compatriots.
“People…. don’t even know there’s a referendum coming up; they think it’s just the work of politicians trying to create problems….”
Tanza says in the immediate future the Sudanese media should focus on “winning the public’s faith” through quality journalism.
“Sudanese in general just don’t trust the media, because it’s always been a tool of power to be used by the authorities.”
Joan Mower, of the US government’s Sudan Programs Group, responds, “The best way to overcome the distrust of news is for news organizations to become impartial and unbiased and to present a fair picture of the news.”
Those monitoring media development in Sudan credit a number of local news outlets, such as Sudan Radio Services and the Khartoum Monitor newspaper, with striving to maintain professional standards of journalism.
But generally, says Tanza, “there’s still the old tradition in the media in Sudan, where all the news is about government officials. Nothing else is news to them. Or there’s no analysis, no in-depth reporting, just rumors and propaganda.”
Dave Peterson, who’s been investigating the state of media in Sudan on behalf of the National Endowment for Democracy in Sudan, says the country’s media should try to “re-establish its reputation. If you have a pluralistic media, people will have a choice of many different views. Those (media) that demonstrate their credibility will become more popular and more trusted.”
“If this doesn’t happen, people just won’t listen to them,” he warns.
Mower says, “People aren’t stupid, and they recognize propaganda when it is propaganda. But I think as you develop a culture of unbiased and really fair and balanced news and information, you support those organizations that are doing that kind of news, and hopefully teach them how to make money. Other examples in Africa – radio stations that have been fair and have been impartial have done very well.”
Jeremy Groce of Sudan Radio Services urges his colleagues to “get away from rumors and speculation, which in a country where people are so nervous, and there are so many guns, rumors can just spill over into violence so easily. Let’s get facts out there, and let’s counter things that we know aren’t true – not for necessarily the benefit of the government, but for the benefit of society.”
But a major challenge to quality journalism in Sudan comes in a logistical form: it’s no easy task covering news events in Africa’s largest country, where floods often turn lands into quagmires, and harsh deserts are equally impassable.
“In the South, a huge area, there are virtually no paved roads. So for a journalist even just to be able to travel around to cover stories is extremely difficult and expensive and risky. It’s dangerous to be a journalist in Sudan. There are still militia factions, and banditry,” Peterson explains.
Says Deng Deng Nhial, a spokesman for the Government of Southern Sudan, “We’re dealing with reality here. Ours is a country of 225,000 square miles. How do you cover news in such a vast land? Southern Sudan is not like America, where you flip open a laptop and file a story or broadcast pictures via a satellite van. We need the international community to set up infrastructure for the media in southern Sudan.”
Tanza says being a journalist in Southern Sudan is a “nightmare.”
“You don’t have (access to) a regular transportation system. You will hear there’s fighting or skirmishes in a town just 100 kilometers from where you are. It will take you seven to eight hours to go to that town. By the time you reach there, the fighting is down (ended). Most of the people who were involved are not there.”
As a result of challenges such as this, says Tanza, Sudanese reporters often miss deadlines and broadcast stories that are days old.
“Because of all the difficulties in covering news in Southern Sudan, most media in the region don’t carry a lot of local stories. A lot of people wonder why: it’s because of the logistical challenges. It’s not like things are a phone call away, or a short road trip away. There are no phone lines; there are no roads. It’s very, very difficult to gather news in South Sudan. Often, it’s impossible,” Tanza says.
He, too, appeals to the local and international authorities for assistance.
But Peterson asks journalists not to lose sight of their duty to do their best to keep the public informed – no matter the difficulties facing them. He says there are many issues they need to investigate, from the allegations of corruption in the young government in the South, to ethic rivalries, to health problems, to the violence in Darfur.
“There are just so many issues in Sudan that need a real public airing, and I’m afraid it’s not happening right now,” he says.