South Sudan humanitarian crisis: The poor media coverage highlights the flaws in news gathering

 

The media is agog at the prospect of George Clooney’s imminent marriage to British-Lebanese lawyer Amal Alamuddin but less struck with a matter that is also close to his heart, the unfolding humanitarian disaster in South Sudan.

This month the world’s youngest country marked its third anniversary. Next month, I understand, parts of South Sudan will be declared as being in a state of famine. Finally the region may get the news coverage it merits after seven months of civil war, which have caused carnage and left more than 1.5 million people displaced.

Of late, Clooney has been largely absent from the story, possibly embarrassed that his much-hyped Satellite Sentinel Project failed to give the early warning signal it was designed for. He might also be reluctant to engage with the media after his recent tussle with the Daily Mail, in which he rejected the paper’s apology after its insinuation that members of Alamuddin’s family were unhappy with her choice of partner.

The Hollywood actor is responsible for a wider awareness of tensions in north-east Africa following a high-profile campaign in the Darfur region of Sudan that began in 2006. He was in South Sudan for its independence referendum in 2011. And although he might now be focusing on his dream wedding in Lake Como, it’s not  good enough that the media should rely on a film star to keep such an important story in the public eye.

The tragedy of South Sudan highlights a number of basic flaws in modern news. Despite the breadth of online information, the major news providers still play an essential role in bringing humanitarian stories to the public’s attention. It is the misfortune of the starving and homeless in South Sudan that their agony coincides  with the appalling turmoil in Syria, Gaza and Ukraine. A refugee seeks aid in South Sudan last week

The Western media only has appetite for so much foreign news.

What is more, it’s another awful African story. With news organisations challenged by tightening budgets, many rely on a single Africa-based correspondent. And as the bloodshed has been taking place in South Sudan, much of the Western media’s African press corps has spent most of the past four months deployed at the High Court in Pretoria, live tweeting details of the Oscar Pistorius trial. The civil war in South Sudan broke out on the day of another South Africa-based global news story, the funeral of Nelson Mandela.

Juba, the South Sudanese capital, is not in any sense an international media hub. Al Jazeera has a correspondent and there are a few foreign stringers filing paragraphs when they can catch the attention of a foreign editor. But journalists visiting this dangerous territory are dependent on aid agencies and other helpers, limiting their ability to report the full story. It’s not the all-encompassing information flow that we like to think we have in the modern media age.

Neither is this country in a position to tell its own story. Article 24 of its new constitution contains a laudable commitment to protecting freedom of expression, but the words are hollow ones, given the conditions under which local journalists operate.  A review carried out this month by freedom of information group Reporters Without Borders details how the local media is being cowed by armed forces on both sides of the conflict. Officials loyal to President Salva Kiir – known for his black cowboy-style hat – demand “patriotic” journalism as they detain reporters and seize entire print runs of newspapers such as the Juba Monitor, which continues in adversity under its courageous editor Alfred Taban.

Media working in areas controlled by rebels fare no better. “For the most part journalists can no longer work there, having fled into exile or ended up in camps for displaced persons,” says the report. Some radio stations have had their equipment destroyed and one, Radio Bentiu, is said to have been used to broadcast hate speech against ethnic groups – behaviour that was a trigger for the Rwanda genocide of 1994.

In such circumstances it is incumbent on Western media to report the story. One thinks back to the coverage of the Somalia famine, which killed 260,000 in 2011. The former BBC news chief Kevin Bakhurst took a brave decision to send big-hitter Ben Brown to Dadaab in north-east Kenya, scene of the largest refugee camp in the world. The media likes such superlatives – and Dadaab supplied enough stories to make real impact. A soldier from Sudan Peopleís Liberation Army-In Opposition

Such journalistic commitments – not helped by last week’s BBC announcement of cuts in its World Service and global news budgets – can save lives. Aid workers identify a direct correlation between media coverage of humanitarian disasters and public donations to appeals. It also influences politicians. The United Nations says $1.8bn (£1.05bn) is needed in South Sudan but only $758m) has been raised, with £93m from the UK Government.

Aid agencies are trying to keep the story alive. Oxfam garnered a brief rush of stories earlier this month after taking Keira Knightley out to the Bor refugee camp, north of Juba. She gave interviews to various outlets, including The Daily Telegraph and Victoria Derbyshire’s show on BBC Radio 5 Live. Even without George Clooney, celebrity remains the framework for this story.

Strangely, the official declaration of famine in South Sudan may come as a relief. “It sometimes takes the f-word to galvanise people,” said one agency worker. Meanwhile, subsistence  farmers are preparing a “green harvest” of what few crops exist, reaping the food when it’s partially ripe to fend off starvation. Such actions will worsen the food shortage.

Famine will force this issue up the  news agenda. It’s time for the media to do some planting.

Twitter: @iburrell

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

Ashdown Group: Analyst Programmer (Filemaker Pro/ SQL) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days, pension, private medical : Ashdown Group: A highly...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Charter Selection: Graphic Designer, Guildford

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Charter Selection: This renowned and well establish...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas