Will Freedom of Expression Hold in Southern Sudan?

Southern Sudanese line up to vote at dawn in the southern capital of Juba on Jan. 9.

"If someone from southern Sudan trusts you, they will tell you enough to write a book," said Sr. Cecilia Sierra Salcido, a Mexican nun and media entrepreneur who runs Radio Bakhita. "We broadcast a special history series, as so much here has not been written or recorded, and so many people have stories to tell."

Radio Bakhita is a Catholic radio station backed by the Archdiocese of Juba and named after Sudan's first Catholic saint. It was established on Christmas Eve 2006 and has a transmission range covering most of Greater Equatoria, or the three southern-most states in southern Sudan.

Two million people died and over 4 million fled their homes when the Sudanese Army fought southern resistance groups from 1983 to 2005. Local militias piled in, either fighting autonomously or backed by the main northern or southern protagonists, and there were various intra-southern clashes mixed in. Vast areas were laid to waste, and though some iconic stories made it out, such was the tale of the Lost Boys, much of what took place during the long wars remains unheard by the wider world.

At Radio Bakhita, the broadcast content is varied, covering local, national and international politics, along with practical topics such as hygiene, sanitation and healthcare advice. "Problems and issues that matter to you, whether you are Christian, Muslim or animist," as Sr Cecilia put it, referring to the three main faiths in Sudan.

Old media only

Southern Sudan is set to become the world's newest state, thanks to a January referendum whose preliminary results suggest the vote will be overwhelmingly in favor of independence. The ballot format itself is an indicator of the challenge facing media outlets in the region, and why it is likely that, as Sr Cecilia puts it, "radio has a major advantage over newspapers and other media."

Radio stations such as Bakhita and Radio Miraya, which is supported by the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), played a key role in informing the public. An estimated 9 out of 10 people in southern Sudan are unable to read or write, so voting was done by thumbprint. Voters placed their print near a clasped pair of hands to remain part of Africa's largest country, or beside a single hand to push for independence.

The format is a common substitute for a signature in the country. For example, I witnessed mothers using their thumbs to sign for malnutrition screening for their children at a clinic close to the north-south border. The facility is run by GOAL, an Irish NGO that has been working in southern Sudan since 1985.

Larger challenges

Community health worker Isaac Perez told me that education or healthcare in this region is "not much better than before the war ended," something perhaps shown in microcosm by the almost 40 mothers lining up to have their children assessed on a Saturday morning at the GOAL clinic.

Electricity is intermittently available in some of the larger towns in southern Sudan, but often only via generators that can be afforded only by the wealthy, U.N. agencies or NGOs. Rural areas and smaller villages are almost all comprised of straw-roofed mud huts, where there are often no schools or electricity, and potable water is only available at a communal borehole or well.

A general lack of education is one toll of the long war—and that in turn has a huge bearing on the state of media in southern Sudan. New media or social networks are far from taking hold. Even though mobile phone usage is growing, widespread illiteracy limits the range of options available to both consumer and provider.

Cellphone companies are trying out ways around this, and one, Vivacell, is rolling out a new service allowing the consumer to "speak" a text message into the handset, which will then deliver the remark in text format, with the obvious caveat that this will work only if the recipient is able to read.

The relatively peaceful and orderly referendum, which drew turnout estimated at over 80 percent, is testimony to the interest in the vote and the information campaigns carried out by the regional authorities, UNMIS, NGOs involved in civic education, and media outlets—particularly local radio stations. English and Arabic are the official languages, but these are not understood by a majority of the almost 10 million southern Sudanese. Radio stations often broadcast in a variety of local languages as well as in English and Arabic, which is another huge advantage over print media.

Different in the north

Media in the Arab-ruled northern part of Sudan is tightly controlled, but in Khartoum and other big urban areas, education and literacy levels are vastly higher than in the south. The incendiary example set by the recent, social-networked protests in Tunisia led to a brief attempt to organize something similar in Khartoum as the southern referendum wound down.

The outcome was the arrest of long-time opposition figurehead Hassan al-Turabi, formerly the Islamist ideologue behind the Khartoum government, but long estranged from current president Omar al-Bashir.

Opposition parties in Khartoum may use the secession of the south to push for a more open system of government in the north, and to pressure the current ruler on the grounds that his policies resulted in the loss of one-third of the country's land and 80 percent of Sudan's oil.

By comparison, the southern part has been home to a relatively free media since the 2005 peace deal. "When I first came here, I immediately noticed the difference in freedom of expression compared with Khartoum," Sr. Cecilia said.

However, there are concerns about corruption or tribal favoritism in the structures of the southern administration. Dr Kim Adiebo, executive Director of Juba University, said, "Some ministries and departments are dominated by Dinka and Nuer," the two largest southern ethnic groups. This "will have to change" post-independence, he said.

Speaking off the record, an official at the U.N. Mission said an independent southern Sudan would be held to a higher standard of accountability; it will no longer able to hide behind the history of northern oppression. Freedom of expression will likely be one of the benchmarks by which the new state will be measured, which could be good news for media.

That will take some getting used to, though. Officials in the government of south Sudan have said that Radio Bakhita is "overstepping the mark," and that Sr. Cecilia and her staff "should be just singing Ave Maria," as she puts it. In other words, stick to religious affairs and steer clear of politics.

This article was originally published by PBS Mediashift:

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