Sudanese journalists and human rights groups are demanding more media freedom in both the North and the South of the country. The Khartoum government’s persecution of reporters is well documented, with members of the media often suffering restrictions, arrests and beatings in the line of duty. But journalists working in the South say certain officials from the Southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement government are also showing little respect for the independence of journalists. In the second part of a series on media in Sudan, VOA’s Darren Taylor reports on the treatment of reporters in Southern Sudan.
“We as Sudanese are facing monumental challenges, and we need the media to help us to overcome these. The media is so important because people must know the activities and policies of the government. It’s crucial that this information is robust and autonomous,” says Deng Deng Nhial, a spokesman for the Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS).
The Southern authorities often criticize President Omar al-Bashir’s administration, saying it does not respect freedom of expression. On paper, the GoSS certainly makes all the right noises with regard to allowing independent media to operate in Southern Sudan, setting itself seemingly in stark contrast to the Northern rulers.
“We have established institutions and laws – a bill of rights – that guarantee the freedom of the media from interference by the authorities. We guarantee the functioning of modern, independent media in southern Sudan and will respect all human rights pertaining to journalists in our country. In the long term, we will promote public service broadcasting at a state level,” Nhial pledges.
But, say reporters and human rights groups, SPLM officials are themselves often guilty of media repression.
“There are a lot of reports that we’ve seen of journalists being harassed in the South, especially by lower level officials,” says Dave Peterson, who’s analyzing media developments in Sudan for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington.
“Press freedom is a platitude in Sudan,” says John Tanza, an experienced Southern Sudanese radio journalist.
“I have had to fly a number of times to Khartoum to get reporters out of jail…. There’s a disconnect about what comes out of the government officials mouths, and what is actually implemented in terms of press freedom.”
Tanza says members of the SPLM and the parties’ security forces are “hostile” to the media.
“Every location you go to, you must report to authorities, announce your arrival and your mission, and what you intend to write about. The police, the lower officials, they don’t know anything about freedom of expression; they only know the rule of the gun or the stick.”
According to Tanza, journalists in Southern Sudan – unlike those in the North – are generally free to criticize government policy and administration agents. But, he maintains, such privilege “comes at a price.”
“The most shocking thing is that what you say on those radio stations or what you write in those newspapers, matters. If you write something that the government (of Southern Sudan) thinks is critical of them, you can get a phone call (from an official warning you to stop broadcasting or publishing the story) or you can see soldiers outside your radio station. It has happened in Juba; there were radio stations closed. There were newspaper editors summoned for stories which the Government of Southern Sudan deemed were very bad for its image,” Tanza explains.
Nhial acknowledges such incidents.
“It’s because of a mindset. They (the SPLM officials) are not used to that culture of freedom.”
Observers of media developments in Sudan agree that it’s mostly lower-level SPLM officials and security forces who are harassing reporters, because they’re generally ignorant of freedom of expression provisions contained in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which in 2005 ended two decades of civil war between the North and South.
Says Tanza, “The big boss can tell you that you’re free to do whatever you want to do. But the foot soldier – he doesn’t want to know that; he looks at you and says, ‘No, you’re not supposed to take photographs; you’re not supposed to talk to this person; you’re not supposed to ask him those questions.’ There’s a lot of media education that is lacking in South Sudan. Most of these people in power, they need to go through media education. They need to know what the role of a journalist is.”
Jeremy Groce, of Sudan Radio Services, which broadcasts news from Kenya into Southern Sudan, says there’s “good will” towards the media from the GoSS, but he adds, “On the ground, lower level officials don’t understand the media at all. They persecute journalists if they’re unhappy with the news.”
Nhial acknowledges that “relatively minor” officials from his government often consider reporters to be the “enemy.”
“The government of Southern Sudan is working very hard. It does recognize the problems that are existing at state and county level, that free media hasn’t reached that area.”
But Tanza fears that Nhial’s acknowledgments will go no further than “mere words.” What he wants is “action” regarding SPLM officials’ lack of cooperation with the media.
“They will hide all the documents from you; nobody will want to talk, and so you end up stranded; you can’t speak about any issues with them. Journalists chase stories for months and months – not even controversial ones – and then the officials avoid them until the reporters are forced to give up,” he laments.
Jimmy Mulla, another highly experienced Sudanese journalist, maintains that conditions in Southern Sudan for reporters are “generally much friendlier” than in the North. But he acknowledges, “The friendliness depends on the stories you are carrying, and it also depends on where you are. If you go to some localities, you have to make yourself known to the authorities that you are in town and that you’re a journalist and this kind of thing.”
If reporters ask questions about certain issues in the South, says Mulla, they’re far more likely to meet with resistance.
“Issues like corruption, human rights abuses, indiscipline of government soldiers, mismanagement of government funds by government officials – some people aren’t happy when journalists write about such things.”
Nhial responds, “I wouldn’t deny the problems are there…. Some of our people are not used to a reporter coming and asking them questions. There’s also that culture of being authoritative; that you’re not going to tell me what to do; I’m not going to give you access. We need to actually train our people and change their attitude and to get them to accept that there’s nothing wrong with a free media.”
Mark Frohardt works at Internews, an American organization funded by the US Agency for International Development. Internews trains journalists and promotes media freedom around the world. An obstacle to good journalism in Southern Sudan, says Frohardt, is the fact that officials there seem still to be stuck in a “wartime mentality.”
At a workshop on media in Sudan in Washington, he said: “Local governors don’t understand that the situation has changed. Those in positions of power are military people who are used to their authoritarian way or no way at all. We must help convince the post-conflict authorities that media doesn’t represent a threat. We must interact with local authorities to educate them.”
Frohardt’s confident, though, positive changes can be made - with a bit of effort.
“In Cote d’Ivoire, one of the first things we did was to distribute the media law to the police. That helped a lot. But it’s a hard process, having to change mindsets,” he said.
Joan Mower, of the US State Department’s Sudan Programs Group, puts the problems down to lack of experience on the part of all involved in establishing quality media in a region that has been ravaged by war.
“I think that right now, the issue in Southern Sudan is that everybody there is on a very steep learning curve.”
She also makes the point that “healthy confrontation” between state officials and journalists is a common factor in most democracies.
“There’s an inherent tension between people who run the country – in any country; it’s the same in our country (the US) – and the journalists, whose job it is to get the facts out to the people in an unbiased way. I think what you’re probably seeing is a lot of growing pains. The most important thing to do in the South is to start getting some independent radio stations in there that can sustain themselves,” Mower says.
Tanza agrees that “there is no government that is a friend to the media.”
But he still insists he’s noticing an “alarming tendency” among Southern Sudanese officials to repress and abuse the media.
“So the government of Southern Sudan is no exception from the other African governments that we are seeing. They came out on the platform of democracy – freedom and everything – and they turned out to be the worst enemies of the media.”