Reports that the horrific violence that took place in the South Sudanese town of Bentiu recently was partly fueled by hate speech prompts inevitable comparisons with media-driven violence in Rwanda in 1994. While the environments in both countries are different, the consequences for South Sudan are considerable. The U.S. Institute of Peace is seeking to address the conflict with a radio drama intended to help young people understand their potential as individuals, respect differences and join together based on common interests.
Ongoing broadcast of war songs and radio stories that glorify conflict, combined with social media filled with comments that instigate violence, are just a few ways that media are exacerbating divides between ethnic groups in South Sudan. And if local broadcasters like the small FM radio station in Bentiu can be taken over by rebels and used to incite violence, it can certainly happen again, given the fluid nature of the ongoing conflict, which is concentrated mostly in the Greater Upper Nile.
Although some South Sudanese still don't have access to media, radio is by far the most prevalent source of information and the most dangerous way to amplify messages of hate. As Toby Lanzer, the United Nations's top humanitarian official in South Sudan put it, the "use of hate speech via a public radio station to incite violence is a game-changer."
What can be done to prevent further media incitement to violence? In terms of regulations, three media bills had yet to be signed into law prior to the onset of violence in mid-December. Even if these laws were now in place, it is unlikely their implementation would succeed in enforcing statutory penalties against those media disseminating hate speech in the midst of the chaos and partisanship brought on by the current conflict.
Similarly, efforts toward self-regulation within the media industry are in nascent stages, and local journalists are under constant pressure to take sides. Meanwhile, calls for international bodies to jam frequencies of local radios perpetrating hate speech also miss the mark. Assuming it's possible to act fast enough to block rebels from airing broadcasts from a small local radio station, jamming is a slippery slope for international organizations operating in the world's newest sovereign nation.
Part of the solution could be to establish a bulwark for local communities against hate speech by airing peacebuilding programming on local radio outlets. In other words, if South Sudanese have frequent and extended access to media content that is carefully designed to increase their knowledge and change their attitudes regarding conflict, history has shown that such programming could also begin to shift their behaviors at the local level. A body of research is emerging on the effects of media programming focused on peacebuilding in conflict-affected countries.
In South Sudan, a successful use of such programming could spur a rejection of hate speech, and ultimately persuade citizens to take an active role in building peace within and among their communities. Other broadcast media programs such as Nashe Maalo in Macedonia and Soul City in South Africa have shown positive results in terms of building inter-ethnic relations and the adoption of better public health practices respectively.
USIP's PeaceTech Initiative is seeking to address the on-going conflict in South Sudan by creating a youth-oriented radio drama called Sawa Shabab (Together Youth). Produced in collaboration with Free Voice South Sudan, a media development NGO, Sawa Shabab is an entertaining drama that is also based on a peacebuilding curriculum developed with local partners.
The full season of Sawa Shabab includes 20 episodes in English and Arabic, as well as five episodes in Dinka and Nuer, languages that were added following the outbreak of violence in mid-December, largely between those two ethnic groups. The weekly drama starts this week on Radio Miraya, Catholic Radio Network and other local radio stations throughout the country.
The key components of the radio program's peacebuilding curriculum promote gender equity, life skills and national identity. They are modeled by the characters in the drama. During the first season, the show follows Rose, a high school-age girl who left her rural village with her mother in search of greater opportunities in town. She is determined to pursue her dreams of becoming an actress, despite being forced into a marriage with a much older man. Meanwhile, Winnie has recently returned to South Sudan from America with new ideas, but she struggles to be accepted back in her home country. Taban, another main character, is a student by day and sells eggs by night to support his family. As a young man in South Sudan, he also has ambitions: to find his father, a profession and love.
The intended outcomes of the Sawa Shabab program are to help South Sudanese youth understand their own potential as individuals, respect the differences they have with others and bring young people together based on the commonalities they share. Audience research will be conducted throughout the broadcast period in order to gauge how the youth audience understands the peacebuilding curriculum, as well as how listeners feel about the characters and storylines.
It's difficult to predict exactly how youth listeners will respond to the drama, but actors on the program have provided an initial indication. Nyayo Chuol, an actress for the Nuer-language version, said: "Kids on the drama are trying to do their best to show us that life is worth living. Youth watching the show will learn a lot about how important it is to make their own choices."
Young listeners will have the opportunity to respond to the program via text message. Through a partnership with FrontlineSMS, a mobile technology company that seeks to promote social change, youth will be able to text their answers to questions posed by actors at the end of each episode. By engaging the audience in this way, USIP and Free Voice intend to start a conversation with groups of youth who could ultimately be mobilized to help prevent or resolve conflict in their communities. Similar to Kenyan civic engagement organization Sisi ni Amani's initiative to prevent election violence in 2013, South Sudanese youth could be trained in how to use the PeaceTXT model, essentially mobilizing communities via SMS to prevent conflict, to counter hate speech.
Girded with newly developing attitudes inspired by Sawa Shabab, and armed with technology tools such as SMS, the potential for young South Sudanese to take action extends well beyond countering hate messaging. By linking up with other youth groups (many of them supported by international organizations such as Spark-South Sudan and UNICEF) with similar goals, these evolving youth networks can help bring the country together. Martha Ajong, another actor from the radio program, emphasized the broader aim: "Unity starts in the household and goes up the ladder. The (Sawa Shabab) radio show addresses this from the ground up."