The spectre of ethnically-motivated killings, and the use of ethnic rivalry or hatred to mobilize and incite one community against another, hangs over the conflict in South Sudan.
Coming just weeks after the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, which will forever be associated with the use of radio to incite hatred and help direct genocidal killings, the UNMISS report that a rebel commander in Bentiu used the local FM radio station to incite hatred against Dinkas, Darfuris and other non-Nuer, sent a shiver down my spine.
In a country with an estimated 80 per cent illiteracy rate, South Sudanese are particularly reliant on radio as a means of getting news and of communicating information. It reaches those who cannot read or cannot access or afford to buy newspapers. It can be listened to throughout the day alone, or in groups and can have a mass effect if used to generate fear, mobilize support or, worst of all, incite hatred of others.
The Radio Bentiu FM station is a key source of news for the population. UNMISS said that the rebels had taken over the station and at times "broadcast hate messages declaring that certain ethnic groups should not stay in Bentiu and even calling on men from one community to commit vengeful sexual violence against women from another community". The UN mission roundly condemned the use of the radio to incite hatred and encourage killings or rape, though it did note that some rebel SPLA commanders had broadcast messages calling for unity and an end to 'tribalism'. While UN radio stations and the Netherlands-funded Radio Tamazuj can be heard in Unity state, the local FM station is the key local outlet and so has a wide listenership in Bentiu.
Several hundred civilians were killed after the rebel occupation of the key oil town and most of the dead are believed to be Dinkas, Darfuris and a number of other Sudanese, deliberately targeted by sections of the rebel force as 'enemies'. At times the rebels have claimed that members of the Darfur Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and other groups from Sudan have been fighting alongside the South Sudanese army. UNMISS in its statement on the killings specifically referred to the targeting of Darfuris and to the killing of at least 200 and the wounding of 400 non-Nuer civilians in a mosque. There were even reports, the UN said, of Nuer being killed for failing to show their support for the rebels. Among the targets for attacks were the mosque, the hospital and a World Food Programme compound. The UNMISS personnel in Bentiu managed to rescue hundreds of civilians and it says it is now protecting 12,000 civilians at its base - part of an estimated total of 60,000 being guarded throughout South Sudan.
The use of radio to call on rebels and Nuer, in particular, to attack Dinkas and other groups does bring chilling echoes of Rwanda and of the use of local radio stations - especially vernacular ones in Kenya and the DRC - to incite fear, hatred or violence against particular groups. These include the Banyamulenge in eastern DRC or Kalenjin against Kikuyu and vice versa during the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007-8 (a Kenyan radio editor and presenter, Joshua arap Sang, is currently in trial at the ICC for using radio as part of the incitement of hatred and violence). The spokesperson for UNMISS, Joseph Contreras, said in an interview on UN Radio in South Sudan that the use of radio to fan the flames of hatred was to be deplored and made a direct reference to the role of hate radio in Rwanda.
But South Sudan is not Rwanda and the ethnic/linguistic picture is more diverse and blurred. Political and ethnic allegiances shift according to time and expediency. There is also a very different media environment with various church, UN or foreign-sponsored radio stations broadcasting - in addition to the national radio based in Juba and smaller government FM stations in the main towns of each state. The local FM stations are the ones most likely to be seized by government or rebel forcers as they capture towns - UNMISS says it is already aware that some stations have been broadcasting hate speech. Mr Contreras called on all sides "to prevent the airing of such messages". He added, though, that it was impossible to say what effect the messages in Bentiu had had on the course of the violence there after the rebel take over.
The media in South Sudan is more varied than in Rwanda in 1994 - when the only stations broadcasting in Kinyarwanda were the Hutu government-controlled Radio Rwanda, the Hutu Power-owned Radio Television Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM) and the Rwandan Patriotic Front's Radio Muhabura. These were supplemented by international broadcasters like the BBC, Radio France International and Voice of America, but none of these transmitted in the local language. In South Sudan, in addition to the national radio service in Juba and state stations in nine provincial capitals, there are over 30 FM or AM stations broadcasting locally, including the UN's Radio Miraya, Radio Tamazuj, the Catholic Bakhita FM, and the USAID-funded Sudan Radio Service. Most broadcast in English and basic Arabic, though the local stations also broadcast in a number of vernaculars, such as Zande, Madi, Muru, Bari and Kuhu.
Reporters without Borders (RWB) ranks South Sudan as 111th out of 179 countries in terms of press freedom, compared with 170 for Sudan. But the role of independent journalists, newspapers and radio stations in reporting corruption has not been popular with President Salva Kiir's government and journalists have suffered periodic harassment. One leading commentator and thorn in the side of the government, Diing Chan Awuol, was shot and killed outside his home in Juba in December 2012. Awuol wrote columns for the Sudan Tribune and Gurtong websites and the newspaper 'Destiny' under the pen-name of Isaias Abraham. There have also been arrests of leading journalists, such as Ngor Aguot Garang, the editor of Destiny, and his deputy editor in November 2011 for a critical piece on Salva Kiir's daughter.
This harassment has not yet made South Sudan's media into a clone of the state-controlled and intimidated media of the north, but Reporters without Borders said that a South Sudanese media expert had told them that "The authorities in Juba were brought up in the Khartoum school and now they are getting ready to put what they learned about repression into practice... Listen to the information minister. He tells us: 'Watch what you write. Be patriotic... Unlike what happens in the North, the repression is not concerted, but high-handed actions, harassment, impunity and brutality are nonetheless the rule."
Harassment has increased since the start of the conflict between forces loyal to the Salva Kiir government and those backing Riek Machar. In recent weeks, the South Sudanese Information Minister, Michael Makuei, has warned reporters in Juba not to interview opposition leaders or spokespeople or face arrest or expulsion from the country. Makuei said broadcast interviews with rebels are considered "hostile propaganda" and "in conflict with the law." The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the minister's outburst followed a recent interview conducted by the Juba-based and independent Eye Radio with a rebel leader at the deadlocked peace negotiations taking place in Addis Ababa. Makuei said this sort of reporting was "disseminating poison". The minister ordered journalists in South Sudan to convey "a neutral position that does not agitate against the government."
There have been a number of cases of journalists being interrogated or arrested since the start of the conflict. On occasions the security services have seized newspapers such as the Juba Monitor and put pressure on Eye Radio to force the resignation of the editor, Beatrice Murail, who left Juba and returned to France as a result. There have also been reports from the CPJ and the Inter Press Service that Nuer journalists are being viewed as potential enemies and supporters of Machar in government-controlled areas and similarly, as the conflict has ratcheted up ethnic tensions, journalists of Dinka origin are under threat in areas controlled by the rebels.
The well-known South Sudanese journalist Bonifacio Taban, who has himself been put under pressure by the government, told the CPJ in March that this situation is making it hard for journalists to report and dangerous, in particular, for those of Nuer origin to cover the story from the government side. He said the tough stance of the government is making it more and more difficult for the local press to stay impartial. "The news in South Sudan is not balanced, it has become one-sided, the government side," Taban told the CPJ.
In these circumstances, it is not surprising that when the rebels seize a town like Bentiu they quickly make sure they control the output of the local media, especially radio. But as the conflict continues and killings escalate, along with the proliferation of both accurate or exaggerated/invented stories of atrocities, the chances of impartiality slipping into propaganda and then down the slope into hate broadcasting is very real.
Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London; teaches at the Centre for Journalism, University of Kent; and edits the Africa - News and Analysis website (wwww.africajournalismtheworld.com). His book Radio Propaganda and the Broadcasting of Hatred was published in 2012.