Monday, May 16, 2016

Voice of the Voiceless:
Good storytelling, and a good way to fly under the radar
(Juba, South Sudan)-When government officials won’t allow criticism or controversy, what’s a peace journalist to do?

Here in South Sudan, as we discussed in my workshop today, journalists may have no choice but to toe the government line, to broadcast unchallenged government statements they suspect may be false, or to suppress stories they know would anger government officials. Failure to please government officials could lead to jail for journalists or to serious consequences for media outlets, like having their license revoked.

The journalists at this workshop, from Juba and rural regions of South Sudan, helped me realize that some measure of peace journalism is possible even in places where press are not entirely free. This can occur when journalists report lower profile stories about average people—the kinds of stories that aren’t as likely to attract attention from government officials. These stories, about everyday people and how policies and conflicts affect them, are just the kind of “voice of the voiceless” advocated by peace journalism. 

For example, reporting about the peace process here at the highest level (presidents, cabinet members, members of parliament) would expose a journalist to all kinds of political and sectarian pressures. Such high level reports on the peace process must fit on only one of two boxes: one pro-Kiir (the president) and anti-opposition; and the other pro-Machar (the vice president and former rebel leader) and anti-Kiir. Which version of the story that gets disseminated depends on which party/leader/ethnic group that one’s radio station represents. Balanced stories giving multiple perspectives, but especially the perspective of the rival “other,”  aren’t possible in South Sudan, the journalists said.

Rather than wade into this swamp filled with overly sensitive political crocodiles, the journalists here suggested reporting about the peace process from the bottom-up. This means interviewing peacemakers at the community level, and highlighting peace initiatives undertaken by and benefiting average South Sudanese. Peace, after all, isn’t really about the politicians and leaders anyway—it’s about those average people who will benefit most from the cessation of hostilities.

With the theme of reconciliation on their minds, the workshop participants came up with a list of promising story ideas. They include stories about people who have solved land or cattle disputes; about farmers who are re-starting their lives after the war; about those struggling to find jobs, especially women; about war-fueled divorces; and how regular people from different ethnic groups celebrate together.

Now, I’m  anxiously awaiting the reconciliation stories the participants produce tomorrow during  the workshop.

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