Journalists reporting freely from Southern Sudan referendum

Through training and dialogue meetings, journalists in Southern Sudan have gained more freedom and better understanding for their profession. In addition, they now have a closer relationship with each other

 By Janne Bruvoll

“I am standing at Kegulu Polling Centre where only few have voted today, but more are expected to turn up in the evening”

Journalist Alfred Taban is reporting live via his mobile phone to Liberty FM in Yei, Southern Sudan. Like his fellow radio reporters in Yei, he moved from one polling centre to the next during the referendum on Southern Sudan’s independence held 9-15 January 2011.

“We have not had any problems getting information from the polling centres. Not even the security personnel at the centres are creating problems for us”, Alfred Taban says.

Able to work freely

The experience is new for the journalists in Yei. During the national elections in Sudan in April 2010, the journalists in Yei River County and the neighbouring Lainya and Morobo Counties were subjected to restrictions and arrests by the security personnel.

“There was a lot of confusion during the elections and security was substantial. That was where a lot of our problems came from, but during the referendum, we have been able to work freely”, says Data Emmanuel Aggrey who is the editor of Maruba, a local newsletter in Yei.

Data Emmanuel Aggrey is convinced that the freedom the journalists are experiencing is a result of numerous trainings and dialogue meetings organised in the past year by amongst others, International Media Support (IMS). As part of the Sudan Media and Election Consortium (SMEC) with SUDIA, Norwegian People’s Aid, Fojo, Arab Working Group and Osservatorio, IMS has been involved in trainings of media personnel and dialogue meetings between journalists and security personnel in Sudan.

“During the dialogue meetings, both we and the security personnel have been enlightened on the roles of the two groups. We now have a clear picture of how to approach the information we want to pass to the people and how we can work hand in hand with the security staff. Before, security personnel were suspicious of us and thought we were spies. Now they even call us to give us information”, Data Emmanuel Aggrey says.

Journalists helping journalists

However, not all journalists have experienced the same freedom and understanding. A journalist from the UN-operated radio station Miraya FM was arrested in Juba during the registration of voters in November 2010. During his arrest, the journalist contacted his colleagues from other media houses and they managed to get him released the same day. The people behind his arrest were put in jail. According to Alfred Taban, this is another success stemming from the trainings offered to the journalists.

“It would not have happened if we had not gone for those trainings. Now, it is easier to get help because the trainings have created a relationship between us journalists”, he says.

Conflict-sensitive journalism

In addition to creating closer relationships, the trainings have helped journalists improve the way they do their work.

“The trainings have made quite a lot of difference for the journalists here in Yei. The most important thing I have learned is about conflict-sensitive reporting”, says Data Emmanuel Aggrey.

As a result, he and his co-editors have decided to incorporate conflict-sensitive reporting in their editorial guidelines.

“The trainings have definitely changed the way we work. We make sure we use better language or a different angle so that we feel that our stores cannot lead to violence. One example was a conflict between the church and the local government over land here in Yei. We made sure we only reported facts, we always got the views of both sides and we quoted directly from the documents of the case”, he says.

During the referendum on Southern Sudan’s independence, IMS is involved in media monitoring, media trainings and mentorships for journalists and media houses in Sudan. Project Manager for IMS Brigitte Sins is happy to see how the journalists’ reporting has improved since the elections in April 2010.

“Overall, there is a happy atmosphere. The journalists now go to the streets and interview people”, she says.

IMS will continue the monitoring Sudanese media’s coverage of the referendum until April 2011 and is planning to organise more workshops and courses for journalists focusing on basic and conflict-sensitive reporting.

The polling centres were closed Saturday evening, 15 January. The referendum was part of a peace agreement signed with north Sudan in 2005. The result of the referendum is expected to be published 14 February 2011.

Read more about Sudanese media during the referendum here.