By Steven Youngblood, director, Center for Global Peace Journalism
Sadly, the need for peace journalism has once again been starkly demonstrated in East Africa as radio-fueled violence descended upon South Sudan last week.
The United Nations reports that “hundreds of civilians” were killed last week in Bentiu, the capital of South Sudan’s Unity state. The killings were “a tragic reflection of longstanding ethnic hostilities in the world’s newest country.” (time.com)
Toby Lanzer, the top United Nations aid official in South Sudan, told media that the violence was incited at least in part by calls on local radio stations for revenge attacks. “’It’s the first time we’re aware of that a local radio station was broadcasting hate messages encouraging people to engage in atrocities,” said Lanzer, who was in Bentiu on Sunday and Monday. (time.com). Those hate messages “urged men to rape women of specific ethnicities and demanded that rival groups be expelled from the town.” Lanzer said the “use of hate speech via a public radio station to incite violence is a game-changer." (theguardian.com)
Last week’s hate radio incident in South Sudan is eerily reminiscent of Radio Mille Collines’ on-air incitement during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Messages broadcast on Radio Mille Collines 20 years ago included, "These Tutsi killers who invaded our country continue to prepare themselves to plant their flags on both sides of the border ... You know the cunning of those people ... They come with guns, they come to kill us." Other broadcast messages talked about “taking out the weeds” as they further demonizing Tutsis. “…They will vanish from this country ... They are disappearing little by little thanks to the weapons hitting them, but also because they are being killed like rats." (BBC, 21 June, 1999)
Unfortunately, there are other incidents of radio fueling violence in East Africa, including hate speech broadcasts that poured gasoline on the fire in post-election Kenya (2007-08), and incitement by Uganda’s CBS radio that sparked riots in Kampala in 2009.
Despite the toxic history in the region, and the awful news from South Sudan last week, East Africans have demonstrated that hate speech on the radio doesn’t have to be the norm in their region. Instead, many have embraced peace journalism, and the notion that media outlets must consider (and be responsible for) the consequences of what is said on the air.
In Uganda, a comprehensive peace journalism project in 2010-11 undertaken by the Center for Global Peace Journalism and the Peace Journalism Foundation of East Africa helped to prevent any media induced or exacerbated violence during and after the February, 2011 presidential election. Other peace journalism projects have followed in Uganda, each building off of the success of the 2010-11 effort.
In Kenya, media correctly recognized their role in post-election violence in 2007-08 that claimed 800-1,000 lives (estimates vary). In 2013, spurred by a nationwide call for more responsible journalism, and aided by trainings and seminars in peace journalism, media in Kenya did not incite or exacerbate election related violence during the last election. Indeed, Kenyan media worked hard to do the opposite—to prevent violence and conflict after the election.
Using these successes as a foundation, an initiative to spread the good word of peace journalism to South Sudan is urgently needed. East African journalists, media NGO’s, and financial supporters of media development projects must immediately finance and produce trainings, workshops, university courses, and in-house media mentoring programs to ensure that the kind of radio-induced violence that occurred last week never again occurs in South Sudan.
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