Sudanese journalists and human rights groups want more media freedom in both the North and the South of the country. Human rights groups say reporters in Sudan continue to suffer harassment and imprisonment for their attempts to reflect the social and political situation. Not only are the media hampered by autocratic officials, but most journalists in Sudan have received little or no formal journalism training. As a result of this, the public often gets incorrect and unbalanced information. Darren Taylor reports in the fourth part of our series focusing on media in Sudan.
Elmigdad Gebril, a veteran Sudanese international broadcaster and journalist, doesn’t mince words when asked to comment on the quality of the media in his homeland.
“There’s a lack of professionalism amongst Sudanese journalists. They take sides and are not objective. The war divided journalists just as it divided the people. Writing skills are pathetic. Reporters just copy and paste from websites; there is no regard that a story is right or wrong,” Gebril says.
He says his fervent hope is for a “new culture of journalism” to be nurtured in Sudan: “one that speaks of neutrality, and a media that holds officials to account for their mistakes – not a media that is used to hide these mistakes, as is happening now…. Many people are not really qualified or trained as journalists, but they practice that profession for political reasons.”
Gebril’s convinced that a “renaissance” within the Sudanese media won’t be possible without “large scale” international assistance.
Another experienced Sudanese reporter, Jimmy Mulla, says journalists in the North are better trained and equipped when compared to those in the South…yet the quality of journalism in Khartoum is hurt by the tight controls that President Omar al-Bashir’s government maintains over the media.
John Tanza, who works for a network of radio stations broadcasting news into Southern Sudan from Kenya, says, “A lot of what passes for journalism in Sudan is actually self-opinionated fluff. When somebody writes his opinion and he predicts things and all kinds of stuff, then people think, ‘Oh, this guy is a journalist.’ But they’re not thinking about objectivity, about balance, about fair play, about facts.”
His colleague at Sudan Radio Services, Jeremy Groce, agrees. In Sudan, he says, people generally have a “very different impression” of what a journalist is.
“In Sudan for the most part you’ve got government ‘journalists.’ And what they really are, from my perspective, is public information officers. But they refer to themselves as journalists. Yet what they’re disseminating…is very controlled by the government. So they’re not necessarily interested in the truth; they’re more interested in putting out a particular message.”
Groce adds, “Then there are those in Sudan who call themselves ‘journalists,’ with the understanding that this means that someone gets to express himself freely. These are people that I would refer to more accurately as columnists, people who write opinions and editorials.”
So-called “journalists” in Sudan, he says, have little concept of the ethics involved in quality reporting.
“Their attitude is: ‘I’m writing this because it’s my opinion; I heard this on the street, and I’m going to present it as fact.’ So part of the problem is a lack of understanding of journalism, and part of it is lack of training in what we view as good journalism.”
Tanza says there’s little effort on the part of Sudanese journalists to investigate the political and social issues of the day.
“In the North, the reason for this is al-Bashir’s repression of the media. In the South, the reason for this is total lack of skills and training of journalists,” he explains.
And the public is suffering, says Tanza, because they aren’t being fed the truth by their media.
“I am yet to see a journalist from South Sudan who comes out with a very brilliant expose about some of the issues that we talk about. Everybody talks about corruption in South Sudan, but who is taking the lead to expose it? It’s our duty to expose those things….”
Observers of Sudan’s media environment point out that the country is on the verge of several historic events: A national election is scheduled for 1009. Before this, a census must be held. And in 2011, Southern Sudanese are expected to vote for or against secession from Khartoum.
But, says Tanza, most local journalists are “at a complete loss about what it takes to report on political happenings” such as these.
“They don’t even know what a census is. They have never reported on elections before. How can they be expected to educate the public if they themselves are completely ignorant about these things? How can the people make informed choices if the reporters themselves are uninformed?” he asks.
Tanza appeals to international journalism trainers to step in to fill what he describes as a “dangerous information and skills vacuum” in Sudan’s media.
Spokesperson for the US government’s Sudan Programs Group Joan Mower says “help is on the way” to improve the quality of the country’s media.
“That’s an area that a lot of people are getting into. I know that USAID funds a project called the Sudan Radio Service that broadcasts into the South. They’ve done training; they’ve done workshops. Another project that receives international funding and does excellent work is Internews. They too have workshops for journalists and training,” she explains.
Mower’s convinced that Sudan’s media environment, which he says is now characterized by poor journalism, will eventually be transformed for the better, as has happened elsewhere when intensive training was provided to local reporters.
“If you look back at when the Berlin wall fell in the late 1980s, there was a rush of training programs that took place in the former Soviet Union to encourage journalists to become independent and to do a good job, and that’s something that’s now taken root there. But it’s not something that happens overnight. Training is lifelong; it has many facets and it’s not easy.”
Internews – with its goals of empowering local people to broadcast in their own languages and to train local journalists who then pass their skills on to others – has achieved remarkable success in neighboring Chad. There, international journalists have trained Chadians and Sudanese in displacement camps in basic media skills, and refugees are being kept up to date with issues that affect their lives. They’re being provided with correct information that’s allowing them to make informed decisions about their health, for example.
Mower comments, “What we’re hoping is that you’re going to see a similar situation in Southern Sudan. We’re hoping for a ramping up of media and media outlets and reporting as we move into the election season…. We’re hopeful about Sudan – we wouldn’t be here unless we were. But we do recognize there are a lot of challenges….”
Mulla says, “It all comes down to money. If the international community and especially countries like the US recognize the importance of the media in the near future in Sudan, and gives the funding to these knowledgeable organizations to soon conduct full-on training, then I’m hopeful. But if the funds don’t materialize, then I fear that the Sudanese public – both in the North and the South – are going to be the ultimate losers, because they won’t be getting access to good quality information and news.”
Dave Peterson of the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington has been traveling to Sudan to analyze the need for media training there. But he fears the momentous events in the country’s history may just be a little too close for comfort.
“I don’t know if there’s enough time or not. I think it all makes it that more important to start now. Training needs to start now and to be done as intensively as possible. As much training as possible would be better than nothing. It may not be enough, but you’ve got to start somewhere.”
In the meantime, Peterson appeals to Sudanese journalists to concentrate on doing their best to report stories from a balanced perspective. His message is, “You don’t need fancy equipment and training in order to be fair.”