South Sudan

Radio Access: A matter of life and death in conflict states

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By Charles Okwir

Juba – 13 Feb 2016: Let’s face it: there are millions around the world who have never heard of World Radio Day – let alone take time to analyze the role radio journalism plays in their daily lives. The theme for World Radio Day celebrations today is ‘Radio in Times of Emergency and Disaster’ – a fitting theme for a country like South Sudan that has seen so much death and destruction in the last two years.

The theme leaves no doubt in one’s mind about what its framers wanted people to reflect upon today – it is, to put it differently, about the “significance” of radio journalism in times of emergency and disaster. In South Sudan, a number of radio stations will come together for a four hour ‘Outside Broadcast’ event at which humanitarian agencies like Save the Children have been invited to discuss the life-saving interventions they are offering to South Sudanese children in times of emergency and disaster.

As far back as 2009, the South Sudan National Bureau of Statistics (SSNBS) estimated that 59% of urban households, and 22% of rural households had access to a conventional radio set. But those figures are grossly unrepresentative of the prevailing reality. In 2014, for instance, nearly all mobile phone companies in South Sudan introduced cheap mobile phone handsets that most South Sudanese can afford. Virtually all these cheap handsets have inbuilt radios, they have durable battery life, and they can be easily recharged with widely available solar power panels.

Now here is the real significance: out of an estimated population of just under 12 million people, 72% (or 8.6 million) are under 30yrs – and that is the age group that cannot even imagine life without mobile phones that give them instant access to a multitude of radio stations. Nowhere is this more apparent than in South Sudan’s capital Juba where at every turn, you see men and youth listening to radios on their phones while drinking tea or playing card games by the roadside.

And it’s not just an urban phenomenon. According to data provided by Internews, four community radio stations in the Greater Upper Nile region reach approximately 2.1 million people, providing remote and information-poor communities with vital access to news and information in local languages. When you consider the fact that a sizeable number of people in remote places like Abyei (near the Sudan border) are actually people who were displaced by conflict and depend almost entirely on food aid, then access to information about food distribution dates becomes a matter of life and death.

It is a sobering thought, yes – but there is absolutely nothing sensationalist about that conclusion. In fact, if further evidence were needed to support that conclusion, then look no further than the Internews website where the organization expressly declares that, “...with up to 2.2m people displaced by conflict, access to reliable and trustworthy information can be the difference between life and death.”

The operative words in the statement from Internews are “reliable and trustworthy information”. For journalists of integrity working in stable political environments, the task of providing “reliable and trustworthy information” to the public is routine business. But the same cannot be said of journalists operating in situations of emergency and disaster. For them, the age-old journalistic duty to “inform, educate, and entertain” is not as straight forward – it must be done in a “conflict sensitive” manner.
This places a huge responsibility on journalists and yet many, especially the younger ones, tend to be ill equipped, and even ill prepared to accept what is (for them) essentially a brand new tenet of journalism - conflict journalism that is! It is a capacity deficit that is recognized by both the Government and civil society organizations.

Search for Common Ground, a conflict prevention and conflict resolution NGO whose stated objective is to “transform conflict into cooperative action” firmly believes that, “...while a dialogue affects dozens, media impacts millions”, adding that they “...use media to stir up thoughts and discussions across a whole society about the root causes of violence and how to overcome differences.” Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the conflict in South Sudan, the ‘National Platform for Peace and Reconciliation’ used radio spot messages and drama extensively to try and calm tempers down.

But the fact that radio journalism “impacts millions” also means that it can be a powerful force for death and destruction – especially if it falls in the wrong hands. And fall in the wrong hands it did during the Rwanda genocide in which over 800,000 people were killed, and three media executives subsequently convicted for being “...key figures in the media campaign to incite ethnic Hutus to kill Tutsis.”

Therefore, if radio is to be maintained as a force for good in times of emergency and volatility, then the biggest challenge of our time is how we can encourage the growth of radio journalism while ensuring (at the same time) that its enormous power is not misused to turn emergencies into disasters.

Charles Okwir is the Media & Communications Manager of Save the Children South Sudan
Twitter: Please follow Save the Children South Sudan on @SCSouthsudan