IN JANUARY 2006, a group of us, mostly college and university students in North America, gathered for an exercise in ‘bridging the information gap’ between the newly autonomous region of southern Sudan and the world. The result of that meeting was the creation of NewSudanVision.com, one of South Sudan’s prominent online newspapers. As students, we were inspired in part by the historic signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which ended Africa’s longest Civil War between the northern and southern Sudan and by the ideals of the Vision of New Sudan that kept our people fighting for their freedom.
Buoyed by those ideals, we embarked on leveraging the role of media in promoting the fundamental tenets of democracy, freedom, justice, peace, prosperity, and good governance. We sought to champion the dissemination of information to people to make well informed decisions on important issues pertaining to nation building.
In this editorial marking the 10th anniversary of our existence online, we would like to highlight the importance of news media and its potential in acting as the catalyst of development and democracy. In particular, we would like to highlight how independent press in the Republic of South Sudan, can help in consolidating the ideals of a societal vision of a new Sudan of equality—the very ideals which were embodied in the epic struggle for freedom, justice and equality by South Sudanese people.
When we would think of the old Sudan from which the Republic of South Sudan broke away, images of widespread horrendous torture, detention without trials and cold blood murders of journalists and brutal confiscations of newspapers kept coming to minds. But our best hope was that the autonomous region would not import the culture of impunity against media freedom. We believed it was just a matter of time and true freedom could be translated through the establishment of free independent media institutions governed with journalistic ethic and responsibility to report accurately.
Yet, following the declaration of independence from the Sudan in July 2011, the newly independent South Sudan remained a nation in sea of challenges. One of these challenges is still lack of political will and lack of capacity to build free independent media institutions needed in laying the country’s foundation stones. When our homeland finally attained freedom, after decades of devastating wars, one of the things we believed would deliver us the dividends of a hard earned freedom is the freedom of press because there is no true freedom without strong and free independent press institutions.
Although ten years have passed during which South Sudan has regrettably lagged behind in line with the goal of developing free press, the government could still be prodded to create an enabling environment for independent press institutions. To build free independent media institutions, the government should strengthen and catalyze press freedom, access to information, independent press ownership and access to capital, among others. In other words, the government should allow freedom and independence of press by limiting the government’s control over the ownership of media and censorship and by giving rights to media houses and practitioners to gain access to information, and allowing citizens access to capital to start independent media.
In case the journalists and media houses violate any law, such violations should be treated as civil cases instead of being treated as cases of national security. In fact, journalists and media houses should equally be required to follow the same standards as any citizens or institutions and the best way to do this is to open a court case in an event of alleged libel or defamation and this should not warrant any arrest without trials for this damages the government more than the alleged defamation they are being arrested. Independent media and journalists are public watchdogs on matters of utmost public concerns, including the promotion of the fundamental tenets of democracy, as well as promotion of people- focused economic development. As such, they should be seen as equal players in the process of nation building, development and democracy.
So it bears repeating that South Sudan needs independent media institutions as much as it needs roads, clean water, electricity, and health and education facilities. Studies have shown that free independent media institutions are great tools in development process of a country. For example, according to the BBC Worldwide Service, studies by the World Bank and the United Nations have demonstrated “that the freer the journalists, the greater the control over corruption and the greater the focus of resources on priority development issues.” In addition, some human development studies have shown that “the weaker the constraints on the press, the more developed the country will be, and the more heavily the press is gagged, the poorer the country will be.” Former World Bank’s President James D. Wolfensohn once said, of the importance of free press in the development process, that “a free press is at the absolute core of equitable development: “if you cannot enfranchise poor people, if they do not have a right to expression, if there is no searchlight on corruption and inequitable practices, you cannot build the public consensus needed to bring about change.” Therefore our government as well as development partners in South Sudan must put free independent media at the core of development agenda as it is as important in promoting freedom as well as promoting economic development.
The media houses should put the South Sudanese ethnic mosaic in mind by seeking to employ fair and objective reporting especially in regards to sensitive ethnic issues which had the potential to ignite hate and division if not handled carefully. For us, media is an architect’s tool of building a harmonious and peaceful society. Such a role can be realized with the existence of free and independent media institutions that are committed to professional standards in their duty to inform the society.