Argument

Radio Days in South Sudan

To reach people in a conflict, sometimes low-tech is the best tech.

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The local communities in South Sudan’s Greater Upper Nile region have borne the brunt of the politically driven violence that began in December 2013. Since then, nearly 2 million people have been forced from their homes. Farmers have been unable to plant their crops due to continuing insecurity, increasing the threat of famine, and outbreaks of disease like Cholera have struck refugee camps and conflict-affected areas alike. In the midst of this, communication has broken down. To reach the people they need to — internally displaced people and those who remain in danger zones — media and humanitarian organizations have had to find new ways of using decidedly low-tech solutions.

While mobile phones and online social networks are pervasive in South Sudan’s urban areas, in the country’s rural regions many people still rely on traditional means of communication – primarily radio. Nearly three-quarters of the population listen on a daily basis. For many people in Jonglei, Upper Nile, and Unity states, where the fighting has been the thickest community radio and shortwave are critical sources of information about the conflict. And the lack of communication options has forced peacebuilders to take creative and novel steps to do get across messages that both contain vital information — and could even help pave the way toward peace.

The Sawa Shabab radio drama, produced by Free Voice South Sudan and United States Institute of Peace (which founded the PeaceTech Lab, where I work), is one of the more innovative attempts to reach at-risk youth communities. Premised around hosting a continuing conversation with youths and changing attitudes about their roles in resolving conflict, the first season began airing last year in English and Arabic — five episodes were also piloted in Dinka and Nuer languages. At the end of each episode, the program asks its audience to call and text into the show and respond to scripted questions about the storylines and how they think the characters are responding to conflict. The show receives an average of 400 responses per episode — and some of the seem to point toward the show making real progress. One young man from Bor, the capital of Jonglei State, called in to say: “Thank you all in the new nation Sawa Shabab! My message is that we must understand our peoples and ourselves. Let us do things (to address) what happens in our country.” But even for those who can’t respond, it empowers the youth audience to think differently about how to build peace.

And Sawa Shabab is not the only effective radio program in dealing with the country’s conflict.

Internews, an international media development NGO, has developed a radio program called “Boda Boda Talk Talk” that airs in U.N. camps for internally displaced people in Juba and Malakal. Broadcast on speakers in tents or attached to speakers driven around the IDP camps on motorbikes (called boda bodas), it offers a news update with local information and NGO-sponsored info about services for displaced people. Greetings sent from camp inhabitants to others and two-minute soap operas on relevant issues acted out by locals comprise the rest of the program. Internews trains local citizen journalists on how to gather information in the camps and investigate what the displaced communities’ needs are. The goal of the program is to help humanitarian NGOs communicate more effectively with displaced people in need of services. “The big thing about our project is that we’ve enabled NGOs to give simple solutions to provide information,” Meena Bhandari, Director of Humanitarian Programs at Internews said. “We can do that with simple technology by making professional recordings on a USB stick and blasting it on a speaker.”

During the worst of the fighting over the last year and a half, a handful of community stations were destroyed. Some have been rebuilt, while others have broken new ground — Internews launched a station called Nile FM in March 2015 to cater to displaced communities. The U.N.’s Radio Miraya also reaches IDP camps, and Radio Tamazuj, an independent station, is widely listened to via shortwave throughout the region. All told, two to three local FMs stations service the state capitals in the Greater Upper Nile, as well as three Internews-supported community stations and additional Radio Miraya repeaters, which retransmit the network’s signal.

Despite the relative success of these radio programs, traditional obstacles such as the lack of local language media content and poor information infrastructure continue to limit how far media projects can reach. The war has brought additional challenges to informing these at-risk communities.

For example, the political space for open debate and press freedom has been diminished as a result of the on-going violence. Although local media were under scrutiny prior to the first outbreak of fighting in December 2013, control has gotten even tighter. Numerous journalists have been arrested and attacked in the past year and a half, including five journalists killed in January by unidentified gunmen. Local radio stations such as the Catholic Radio Network’s Radio Bakhita have been shut down. Even the U.N.’s Radio Miraya has been threatened with closure. The government does not tolerate interviews with or statements from rebel leaders. As a result, according to a report by the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office, “self-censorship by journalists and media houses continues to be widespread.”

Still, the boundaries of communication are still being pushed with new technologies.

USAID’s VISTAS program, administered by AECOM International, is initiating a pilot program that will distribute up to 250,000 digital audio players to areas in Jonglei and Unity states where FM radio is unavailable. The players would be loaded with peace-oriented programs from other organizations as well as their own material related to trauma healing. Cell phones are part of this, too. Mobile penetration rates, while still low at 28 percent nationally, according to the 2013 National Audience Survey conducted by Forcier Consulting, are substantially higher in urban areas. Natalie Forcier, CEO of Forcier Consulting in South Sudan, told me, “Access to a mobile network can be life or death for communities. It’s a building block that opens door for everything else in development.”

Yet despite the potential of mobile, it’s far from a panacea. John Tanza Mabusu, co-host of Voice of America’s “South Sudan in Focus” program, argued, “Mobile is effective but literacy is an issue (for text messaging). How many people can read your message? Interpretation of this message can differ. How do you interpret a message about the peace deal in Addis Ababa? The best way of passing information is by empowering existing radio stations with good reach.”

Similarly, good old-fashioned face-to-face interaction is still one of the most trusted means of communication in many rural communities. Some humanitarian organizations continue to utilize word-of-mouth and distribution of leaflets with cartoons to spread the news about cholera treatment and sources of clean drinking water. As with radio, however, local and international groups are also beginning to use inter-personal communications in innovative new ways to reach at-risk people with entertaining and educational information about peace and health services.

One promising byproduct of the on-going conflict in South Sudan is a subtle shift in the collective mindset regarding how information is consumed. For the humanitarian organizations doing their best to provide services to the at-risk communities, creative programs like “Boda Boda Talk Talk” can help them understand the people they serve better. For local people who are struggling to manage displacement and insecurity, they are increasingly seeking sources of information outside their personal networks. Nicola Franco, a producer at Free Voice South Sudan, explained, “The conflict has changed things because there is more demand for information from the capital. People want to know the news through radio – and whether the rebels are coming.”

 ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images

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