How Media Ownership Structure Hurts Environment Reporting in South Sudan

Written by: 
Andrew Ssebunya

In South Sudan, the media ownership structure hinders efforts to document stories on environment and climate change.

In the world’s youngest nation, the harsh realities of the effects of climate change are not only being felt on the ground but also through the airwaves. While the media is expected to play a key role in mobilizing and sensitizing the population, especially in times of emergency such as floods, heatwaves, forced migrations among others, the media landscape makes this difficult for a national discourse on environmental conservation to be shaped.

The status

In a country with internet connectivity still standing at hardly 11%, traditional journalism still reigns supreme though newspapers and radio stations live under constant fear of a sensitive and paranoid government. Content, therefore, has to be “friendly” to the government line of thinking. In 2022, The Juba Monitor was suspended over disputes about legal ownership. The climate of fear reigns.

The radio industry is not doing any better, operating under the same restrictive conditions in an economy that can hardly support their viability. Largely owned by the church, international NGOs and charity organisations the largest concentration of them is in and around the capital, Juba, for obvious reasons. About 26 radio stations are scattered across the ten states that make up South Sudan, but whose access is difficult due to poor transport systems.

Contradictions in the legal and regulatory environment make is worse. As per the 2011 Transitional Constitution of South Sudan the right to freedom of expression is guaranteed under Article 24. But this is where it ends as the reality on the ground is different and makes people to fear what might happen after they have expressed themselves.

Laws such as the Penal Code Act 2008, the Media Authority Act 2013, the National Security Service Act 2014 and the National Security Bill of 2015 all have provisions that say the opposite of what the constitution guarantees, especially on the protection of freedoms of expression and media. Under these regressive provisions, for instance, six journalists of the state-run South Sudan Broadcasting Corporation were in January 2023 detained by the security forces over an audio-visual footage of the president apparently urinating on himself at a public event.

The Media

State-run broadcaster, the South Sudan Broadcasting Corporation (SSBC) was founded in 2010. While it has a wide reach, its coverage of climate change is often criticized for lacking depth and failing to address critical local issues. For instance, in 2022, SSBC reported on the government’s efforts to plant 10 million trees without mentioning the widespread deforestation, land degradation and refugees’ issues in the country.

Privately-Owned Media

As far as environment and climate change issues are concerned, Eye Radio stands out. Founded as Sudan Radio Service in 2003, Eye Radio is now managed by Internews and Eye Media. It has carved out a niche for itself by focusing on community-based environmental reporting, highlighting grassroots impact and efforts to combat climate change.

Another leading station is Radio Miraya which started operations in June 2006 under the UN Mission in Sudan and Swiss NGO Foundation Hirondelle. It also prioritizes the reporting on environmental issues.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), South Sudan has lost over 30% of its forest cover in the past ten years, leading to soil erosion, flooding, and displacement.

Journalist and media trainer, Dominic Kango, who has reported on environmental issues for over a decade, notes, “The media landscape is changing, but we still need more diverse and robust reporting on climate change to raise awareness and inspire action.”

The structure of media ownership creates a challenge in information dissemination with some news outlets staying away from environment issues that are either too sensitive or affecting areas which the government considers opposition strongholds. They also choose narratives or frames that are friendly to the government.