Since violence broke out last week in South Sudan, I’ve been thinking about the role that information – or lack thereof – plays in stoking violence. I spent most of last week (here, here, and here) trying to parse fact from rumor, watching how some South Sudanese political elites stoked fears with their rhetoric (Salva Kiir, guns blazing in his press conference on the 16th, Riek Machar’s creeping rebellion from scapegoat who escaped Juba with his life, to calling for the SPLM/A to overthrow Kiir, to overtly claiming he is in charge of the uprising against Kiir.) I’ve been very circumspect about passing information that may be fact-based, but one-sided, such as reports of Dinka killing Nuer or Nuer killing Dinka. On this issue, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have done a good job in documenting the occurrence of abuses perpetrated by both sides, and calling for South Sudanese leaders to be voices of moderation in discouraging such reprisal killings.
So to answer the question posed in the title of this post – and to expose my own bias – Yes, I do believe that individuals and organizations writing about these crises have a Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Notice that here, I’m using R2P not as an obligation to intervene to prevent mass atrocities, but more as an obligation to present objective, verifiable analysis that proactively seeks to “do no harm”. So this is why I’ve watched, with interest, the petition that Gabriela Jacomella (@gab_jacomella), Aguil Lual Blunt (@AguilB), and Nicki Kindersley (@nicki_dk) wrote to the Guardian on South Sudan Crisis and Responsible Reporting in reaction to this story over the weekend, about which the petition states:
“We are aware of the difficulties in gathering information from outside of Juba, the capital city. However, we are extremely concerned about the risks in reporting exclusively anti-Nuer violence in one location. We are aware that international media plays a strong role in fuelling retaliation elsewhere in the country, and we believe that your report contributes to this threat. South Sudanese people are trying to fight the language of tribalism, hate and fear-mongering. Now – more than ever – there is a real need for unbiased, balanced and informed reporting. By concentrating on ‘ethnic violence’, particularly against the Nuer in Juba, your coverage is deeply flawed and at risk of being used as propaganda.”
“Does the media have a “responsibility to protect” or to just report atrocities as they happen no matter who they are committed by? The crisis in South Sudan is a conflict of two levels. There is the political level of government vs. the rebels. There is ethnic level of tribe vs. tribe. In South Sudan there is cross over between both types. Most conventional conflicts are political/religious in nature between a government and “rebels”. Journalists should always fully report on these conventional types and generally the same on the ethnic. However, is there ever a time when the media should hold back on the reporting of ethnic incidents or in the least use nuance on headlines and articles? I think so. Let’s look at Rwanda then and South Sudan today. Rwanda was a government/local media sanctioned conflict/genocide, South Sudan is not that. Rwanda had a much better educated populace compared to South Sudan. In Rwanda, there was no cell phone/internet coverage, no FB/Twitter/media that could report events in real time allowing people to quickly revenge on what they were hearing. The average Nuer/Dinka on the ground is not responding to incidents in the political fight that is happening, he is responding to very old hatred of the “other”. All incidents in the political fight are seen through the lens of tribe and not politics. Holding back in reporting or being very careful with the phrases/headlines used, so as to not incite people is perhaps something journalists are not used to. To end, I do think they have a “responsibility to protect” in a way which is perhaps opposite of their training. This conflict is possibly in it’s early stages and without careful reporting, things could be inflamed for reasons that are outside of what the government/rebels do. Remember: all it takes for a Nuer oil field worker in Bentiu to beat his Dinka co-worker over the head with his pipe spanner is for him to receive an SMS from his brother in Juba about a headline or phrase he saw on his phone. The reporting can happen in real time and the violent response will also be in real time.”
I think it’s difficult in any unfolding crisis to discern what is and is not going on and to pull yourself out of a situation so you can convey the issues in a balanced fashion. However, having watched how quickly South Sudan unraveled last week, I hope that future commentary and analysis can bear in mind how important it is not to add to the misperceptions that have fueled reprisal killings over the past 10 days.
In closing, I thought I’d put in a plug for the list Aguil compiled of South Sudanese tweeps to follow on the infolding events in South Sudan and the list of other sources of information and people to follow, which I compiled earlier in the week.