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By Faith Kasina
Pass by any tea kiosk or shopping outlet strewn along the roadsides, or a fleet of commuter bikes commonly known as bodaboda in South Sudan and you will notice one commonality: radio.
Whether housed in a mobile phone or public address system, radios are simply a way of life here and quite clearly a living need for people to stay informed.
“Most of us have no televisions,” says Asunta Akol, a resident from South Sudan’s Lakes State. “We have little access to newspapers or the internet so it is easier to get information from radios. They are basically our lifeline.”
Yet what citizens need to know most about – their rights and entitlements from their leaders, their country’s affairs and other important national issues, and how they can participate in the making of decisions affecting them –is still deafeningly off-air.
Years of political oppression have severely infringed on the citizen’s right to know, resulting in an innate fear not only to express opinions or needs but also a reluctance to seek vital information on their entitlements from those appointed through the ballot box. The fear is even more apparent in the current climate.
“Fear of being targeted means it is not easy for citizens, including some government officials, to talk openly about certain issues particularly on security or intercommunal conflict- the core issues here in Lakes State” says Luca Lueth, a Program Manager with Radio Good News, that airs a Trócaire-supported current affairs program.
“Last June we were closed down because of discussing those issues. This has limited our capacity on what we, as a broadcaster, can report. If we cannot report, the public will not know.”
Community briefing in Yambio, South Sudan. Photo credit: Caritas Internationalis
According to an audience survey by Internews, radio emerged as the second most important information source on critical matters such as the constitution and roles of government officials. Additionally, 37% of the population own a functional radio at home.
Despite this, many media outlets including newspapers and radio stations are often unfairly gagged, which locals like Asunta disagree with.
“I can listen to our leaders and interact with them through phone calls or text on radio,” she says. “Like now, I am able to follow what is going on in Addis Ababa (ongoing mediation talks to resolve the South Sudan’s current political crisis) so I feel part of the process.”
Three key media draft laws were recently (September 2014) passed by parliament, closing in the legal vacuum that journalists in South Sudan have been working in for years. Yet, local media professionals remain sceptical of change to their ever-souring relationship with the government.
“Authorities should see us as one of their arms, wanting to develop the same country. We are just the people’s voice,” says Luca.
There are four main radio networks with broad coverage in South Sudan. Trócaire partners with one of these, the Catholic Radio Network (CRN) established in 2006, to air civic education programs touching on current affairs with clear messages on conflict resolution and peace-building, particularly after the December 2013 conflict.
In addition, Trócaire directly supports two radio stations- Radio Good News (Lakes State) and Voice of Hope (Western Bhar Al Ghazal State)in producing and airing weekly civic education programmes, to help people know and understand their basic rights and be able to better participate in governance processes.
The programmes are based on interviews from relevant experts on the topics being discussed. Listeners then get a chance to call in during the shows and contribute to the discussions.
“From our listeners, it is clear that people are more aware (of their rights) and are willing to express issues that they think government should be addressing,” Luca attests. “People want to talk about these issues and radio is the main outlet.”
Peter Mayor, one of the listeners, whilst contributing to a discussion on the state’s economy said “reducing taxes on everyday items as charcoal and vegetables or selling fruits or timber” can reduce people’s over-reliance on oil as a source of livelihood.
For Trócaire, a population that is aware of their rights is more capable of determining who governs them and how they are governed.
“People should be aware of their rights and entitlements so they know how they should be treated,” reiterates Niall O’Keeffe, Trócaire Governance and Human Rights Program Lead.
“It is a fundamental human right that people have a say in how they are governed and the radio provides an excellent forum for people to have these discussions.”
As one community member from Baggari area in South Sudan rightly put it, “If they (government) don’t come to us and understand our needs, there will be no solution” – radios could well be that first turn on the ignition!