The Government of South Sudan (GOSS) has announced that it intends to establish a news agency that will cover areas of the south starved of mainstream media coverage . The idea for establishing the News Agency of South Sudan (NASS) was endorsed at a cabinet meeting chaired by President Salva Kiir at the end of October.
NASS is envisaged as an agency that will replace the Sudan News Agency (SUNA), managed by the government in Khartoum. Overall, it is also seen as a vehicle for consolidating free expression in South Sudan. Southern Sudanese nationalists and proponents of media plurality and free expression are likely to welcome this announcement because it contains promises to fund the training of journalists and wean the Southern public of the services of the Sudan News Agency (SUNA), which is largely seen as a mouth-piece of the Khartoum government.
But regardless of the grandiose statement affirming free expression, two troubling issues come to mind regarding the intended news agency.
First, the news agency will purportedly “support news and information programming at public and private domestic media outlets” in South Sudan. Secondly, the ministry of information and broadcasting will be tasked with developing and managing the news agency.
Lessons to learn about news agencies
At this point, it is pertinent to pause and reflect on the history and role of news agencies in most African countries. The history of government-run news agencies in Sub-Saharan Africa, paints a rather dismal picture of free expression. Seen as an extension of the state-controlled media, news agencies are used to buttress control by the powers that be and mold obeisance to leaders.
SUNA is a good case study of this type of control. Following President Jaafar Nimeiri’s nationalization of the Sudanese media in 1970, ostensibly to ward off the influences of some newspapers that had become “stooges of foreign powers,” , private news outlets were all grouped under SUNA. This facilitated absolute government control on all media in Sudan . Twenty-three years after the demise of the Nimeiri regime, successive Khartoum governments continued to wield absolute control over SUNA.
To date a cursory review of the news distributed by SUNA indicates that the agency is nothing more than a mouth-piece of the government. Its editorial policy is defined by that hallowed mantra favoured by repressive regimes the world over: news is when a government minister speaks; which in essence means an absurd devotion to covering the top echelon of the government .
So as the Southern government contemplates the setting up of a news agency, it is important that such an agency should not mimic SUNA and be used as an instrument for muzzling free expression. Generally, media practitioners and civil society have noted that the SPLM-led GOSS is quite “liberal” in its attitudes towards free expression compared to its National Congress Party counterpart in Khartoum. But these same observers have also noted that tolerance for free expression is only prevalent among top-level government officials. At the lower ranks, and among the civil service, a “militaristic mind-set” curtails respect for free expression, notes a recent report on the state of the media in South Sudan .
Apart from an intended omnipresent government role in NASS, other worrying issues regarding the creation of the news agency arise from the fact that there is no concrete legal framework on the formulation, establishment, and management of publicly-funded media in South Sudan. For instance, since the news agency will be set up using public funds, should it be managed by an independent body that’s not subservient to the SPLM-led government or not?
South Sudan has long haboured secessionist ambitions dating back to 1955. At no time in its entire history has the South inched closer to an independent nation-state status than now. The momentum for independence continues to galvanize Southerners, as echoed by Salva Kiir recently when he urged a vote for succession during the referendum slated for 2011. The intention to create a news agency in the South is driven by this momentum.
It is therefore imperative that a new state in Sub-Saharan Africa heed lessons about respect for free expression if it is to join the civilized world. The SPLM has long chanted that the armed struggle it waged was for freedom. While the task of creating a conducive atmosphere for free expression in South Sudan is daunting, given limited resources, poor infrastructure, and lack of capacity, the earlier the seeds are sown, the better.
Currently sitting before the South Sudan Legislative Assembly, are a raft of progressive and democratic media legislations crafted more than a year ago by civil society and government officials. The bills address some of the crucial issues pertaining to free expression, including questions about the management of publicly-funded media.
The Right to Information Bill (RTI) would give Southern Sudanese the right to access government documents and other information about the workings of government. The Public Service Broadcasting Bill and the Broadcasting Frequency Management Bill will respectively create modalities for the establishment of a public broadcasting system and distribution of frequencies. These bills have been endorsed by cabinet but still await adoption and ratification by the legislative assembly.
It is now three weeks since the assembly resumed its sitting after the long summer recess. Since the creation of the news agency has the blessing of President Salva Kirr himself, it would be prudent that the president uses his influence to ensure that these bills pass to pave the way for free expression in South Sudan.
Brian Adeba is a journalist with research interests on the role of the media in South Sudan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1-James Gatdet Dak, “South Sudan establishes news agency,” Sudan Tribune [online], 31 October 2009. http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article32961
2-Legum, C, “The mass media—Institutions of the African political systems.” In O. Stokke, ed. Reporting Africa. New York. Africana Publishing Corporation, 1971.
3- Mohammed Gallander and William J. Starosta, “Press controls and the post-colonial Sudanese press.” In Eribo, Festus and Jong-Ebot, Willam, ed. Press freedom and communication in Africa. Trenton, NJ. Africa World Press, Inc., 1997.
4-A review of SUNA news for 14 November 2009 reveals that all the 14 stories on its website mention top level government officials issuing decrees, meeting foreign dignitaries, leading delegations abroad, and registering for the elections etc. http://www.sunanews.net/english-latest-news.html
Contrast this with news retrieved online on the same date from Sudanile, a private online news source. Its seven stories talk about the opposition, tribal clashes in South Sudan, government harassment of opposition supporters, and sky-rocketing prices for basic commodities in Khartoum, etc. http://www.sudanile.com/
5-Mapping the void: A state-by-state media assessment report on South Sudan and select Northern states. (Pgs. 28-29). By the Consortium on Promoting Freedom of Expression and Civil Society Involvement in Developing of Democratic Media Legislation in Sudan. August 2009.
6- “Sudan’s Kiir calls on Southerners to chose independence,” Sudan Tribune [online], 1 November 2009, http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article32967.