Thu, Apr 11, 2019 - Page 6 News List

South Sudanese radio station struggles to stay on the air

AFP, JUBA

A security guard listens to the radio while working at the Eye Radio station in Juba, South Sudan, on March 2.

Photo: AFP

South Sudan’s Eye Radio journalists have been threatened, pulled off the air and forced to cower in hallways as bullets flew outside their studios. The only independent radio station in the war-wracked country has to walk a fine line between delivering credible information and not running afoul of the government.

“We really struggle in making sure we remain independent,” station manager Koang Pal Chang, 45, told reporters.

“Media are censoring themselves so that they avoid having problems with authority,” he added.

The radio station began broadcasting in the years leading up to South Sudan’s independence in 2011. Then, in 2013, war erupted as South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar, fell out.

In 2016, a peace deal fell apart, and Juba was hit by three days of fighting, concentrated in the neighborhood of Jebel, home to Machar’s headquarters and the Eye Radio studios.

“The bullets were flying all over and even our newsroom was hit. We could see a gunship hovering around, it was like being in a movie,” Chang said.

According to the station manager, Eye Radio has about 1 million listeners out of an estimated population of 12 million in a country where few have access to a radio.

This makes it challenging to disseminate crucial information — for example, about the signing of a fresh peace agreement in September last year.

“There are places where ... people don’t even know about the peace agreement. There is no kind of media,” Chang said.

South Sudan has about 60 indigenous languages and no electrical grid, and less than 4 percent of people have Internet access at home, the International Telecommunication Union said.

A 2017 study by humanitarian organization REACH, found language and illiteracy to be the greatest barriers to news in the country.

Radio is the main source of information, while in camps for the displaced, loudspeakers are also used.

In South Sudan, “one of the most frequently cited emergency news sources was gunshot,” to communicate information, the study found.

“Some South Sudanese rely fully on traditional forms of communication ... such as sending runners to the neighboring communities, performing war songs, displaying smoke signals ... to alert about a threat or an unfortunate event,” it added.

Eye Radio is the only national broadcaster to provide a digest of the week’s news in several local languages.

South Sudan also has the UN’s Radio Miraya, Radio Tamazuj broadcast from outside the country, the Catholic Radio network and dozens of small community-based radio stations.

In a country where 70 percent of the population is illiterate, newspapers are barely read outside the capital and face their own challenges.

“You see blank pages [in the newspaper]. Security [forces] are stationed at the printing press to go through the content before it is published,” a local reporter said on condition of anonymity.

In 2016, Eye Radio was briefly pulled off the air after playing a 30-second clip of Machar speaking.

“Other media were shut down completely,” Chang said.

Presently, instead of playing voice recordings of opposition leaders, Eye Radio simply paraphrases their statements.

A difficult challenge is security. Journalists are unable to leave the capital or main towns to report.

“There are so many attacks on the road. Sometimes we send journalists, but mostly on an organized trip” with the UN or aid agencies, Chang said.

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