South Sudan: Competing Interests as Media Struggle to report on Environment and Refugees

Written by: 
Sandra Afoyorwoth

How can one ably document stories about protecting forests and wetlands in a country that is constantly at war or some form of political conflicts?

This question is much more relevant in countries such as South Sudan where stories about refugees and those about the environment often clash making it difficult for journalists wade through a different kind of conflict.

For over a decade the country witnessed at least two civil wars which created a huge humanitarian crisis with almost six million people facing challenges and in need of support. This is compounded by another crisis that the country has struggled to manage for the past four year: floods that have destroyed lives, homes and livelihoods.
The country, therefore, faces three crises - all having a symbiotic relationship making it hard for an average journalist to identify issues on one and articulate them without hurting the others. As war creates displacement of people, the refugees turn to nature for survival. In the meantime, nature also strikes back through floods and droughts. At local levels, as refugees settle in new areas, there is competition for the scarce resources with the host communities. Competition for water, land, and firewood creates more tensions and conflicts. The media find themselves a crossroads on how best to tell the stories and, most importantly, which story to tell.

At the centre of this is the donor community and humanitarian organisations who come in with clearly defined interests.

Dominic Kango, a media trainer and lecturer at the University of Juba, stresses that most donors who influence stories express interest in story niches that pay limited attention to climate related stories.

“The refugee crisis puts additional pressure on the already exhausted resources in South Sudan. The media industry is faced with the dilemma of either reporting the plight of the refugees/returnees or problems caused by their presence,” Kango says.

Limited funding for the media, especially on climate change kind of journalism storytelling, also exacerbate the problem. Kango explains: “The media, struggling with meager resources choose to report on issues that generate funding and address the concerns of donors.”

Environmental disasters do not, therefore, take the media attention the way conflicts and the resultant refugee crisis does. Only when a big disaster such as floods strikes do the media come in to report the event.

Rose Angwech, a communication specialist mentions a couple of issues going on in South Sudan right now like inflation, and flooding in some areas like Jonglei State and Unity State. She however notes that the country is facing authoritarianism making it difficult for the media to give attention to some of the issues. “Our government controls what is published and what is not, more of press censorship,” she notes.

With most parts of the country inaccessible by road, says Angwech, the media struggle to reach there and document the stories and also create awareness about environmental concerns.
CSOs move to fill gap

Some civil society organisations do engage the media in issues of environment but with limited success.
Amos Ongwen is an environment officer working with Dutch Church Aid at the South Sudan-Uganda border. He says his organization has arranged a number a number of environmental events. “We invite our local media to cover, these days if you don’t give them anything I’m afraid such issues may never be covered. Maybe they look at environmental issues as those that don’t generate any money both for the journalists and the country at large, in this country everything has been monetized,” he explains.

But, are there ways to interest the media in environment issues?

Kango says the first strategy is to have robust media coverage of climatic shocks to divert attention from issues that have preoccupied the media space. “We could adequately start advocacy and campaigns by civil society and local NGOs to show why it matters. The media as well can be sensitized in order to bring their attention to the rampant environmental threats,” he adds.

On funding Kango says non-governmental organizations can indulge in writing project proposals to attract like-minded donors to support coverage of environmental issues. “The problem has always been funding from donors. They often tie it to specific genre that makes it difficult to divert,” he adds.

On the knowledge gaps on the side of the journalists, Kango says the media can be advised to undertake research to fill gaps in understanding, and integrating knowledge from multiple disciplines and resources, as a basis for evidence-based decision-making and interventions in order to cover all issues simultaneously. To ensure environmental concerns are addressed alongside donor-funded issues, a strategic approach can be employed, such as integrating environmental considerations into existing programs, and building local capacity