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By Daniel van Oudenaren - 4 May 2014

Analysis: Major language constraints on media reach in South Sudan

Like other economic sectors, the media sector has been significantly damaged since the start of the crisis in South Sudan, in terms of number of radio stations destroyed, number of journalists out of work, sales and advertising impact, and level of constraints on press freedom. 

Journalists therefore had little to celebrate on World Press Freedom Day last Saturday.

But even if South Sudanese media were entirely free, would they be able to reach their own people?

The answer: Not enough of them by far. Besides technical access constraints such as low rates of ownership of radio sets, low literacy, and limited reach of FM transmissions, South Sudanese media face major language challenges that stand between their outlets and their audiences.

This unfortunately limits their ability to play a positive role in conflict transformation. Throughout the deepening conflict in South Sudan over the last four and half months many prominent people both globally and within the country have made calls for peace: Ban Ki-moon, African leaders, the Pope, the US President, Martin Luther King III, diplomats, churches and advocacy groups, to name just a few.

Often they have spoken or written articulately, passionately and wisely about the needs of the country and its people at this time.

The reality is, however, most South Sudanese have never heard these calls for peace.

Neither will they necessarily know what happens in peace talks in Addis Ababa this coming week, nor what was agreed at previous rounds, nor what steps and actions are being taken to otherwise address the crisis. This is because these reports and messages are conveyed in languages they do not understand or through media they cannot access.

Linguistic profile of South Sudan

South Sudan has about 60 languages. The languages with the most speakers are Dinka, Nuer, Zande, Shilluk, and Bari. This group of language speakers probably constitutes a majority of the population.

However, a breakdown by number of speakers by language is difficult to estimate because the 2008 census did not include a question on language. In terms of the map, some areas of the country are fairly linguistically homogenous, whereas other areas are very diverse, such as Western Bahr al Ghazal.

For some people their native tongue is their only language, while most also speak at least a little bit of one of the exchange languages, English or Arabic of some variety.

Rising use of English

As a liberation movement, South Sudan’s ruling party SPLM aimed to free the country not only from political and economic ‘marginalization’ at the hands of a distant government in Khartoum, but also from a process of forcible ‘Arabization and Islamization.’

For political reasons therefore the party turned to English-speaking East Africa as an alternative model and adopted English as the official language after independence in 2011. At the political level, the ruling party and government handled their business in English. At the popular level, meanwhile, huge numbers of South Sudanese refugees in Uganda and Kenya learned English and later returned home proficient in this new language.

An elite developed language competencies for dealing with English-speaking envoys, aid workers, peacekeepers and businessmen, and an emerging middle class sought to cultivate English language skills to secure jobs in non-governmental organizations. English became the new prestige language, while mastery of literary Arabic attracted increasingly negative political associations.

Most of South Sudan’s media was developed since 2005 as this linguistic shift was taking place. As English gained prestige in the political arena, DJs began hosting their shows in English, classically educated Arabic speakers began to lose influence at state radio stations, and Khartoum-printed papers came under increasing political pressure and began to disappear from the markets.

The South Sudanese daily Al Masir was launched after independence, preserving some market share for Arabic print, but the tide had clearly turned in favor of the English papers.

Prevalence of spoken Arabic

For many years therefore South Sudan has experienced a politically and strategically significant shift toward use of the English language. However, the rising use of English should not obscure the fact that the dominant lingua franca remains Arabic.

Arabic is understood by more people, in more parts of the country, and it has a far longer history influence on indigenous languages as well. Much of the judiciary, civil service and military continue to communicate with each other in Arabic.

As late as 2012, Arabic-speaking students at the University of Juba staged a protest because professors were using English in their lectures, insisting this was not fair to those who had been educated at Arabic pattern secondary schools.

And politicians, though their formal communications may be in English, tend to address crowds in Arabic.

Mutual intelligibility of Arabic dialects

Differences between different spoken Arabic dialects further complicate South Sudan’s linguistic profile, but generally the dialects are mutually intelligible to some degree.

‘Juba Arabic’, the best-known dialect, is often mistakenly assumed to be the only kind of Arabic spoken in the country, when in fact it is probably not the most popular dialect. The online Encyclopedia Wikipedia explains that Juba Arabic is spoken mainly only in Equatoria – that is, in only three of South Sudan’s ten states – pointing out that the dialect spoken in other areas is “closer to Sudanese Arabic.”

Another common misperception, even among South Sudanese themselves, is that Juba Arabic is merely bad or messy Arabic. In fact, it is a distinct dialect, with its own grammar, unique vocabulary, and phonetics evolved to the purpose of easing the use of the language by Equatorian tribes.

The kha of the Arabic alphabet, for example, is usually simplified to kaf, the ‘ayn disappears altogether, and the qaf is simplified to a sound like the hard English ‘G’, as in Darfur Arabic.

Arabic spoken to the north of Equatoria, by comparison, such as in Upper Nile or Unity states, tends not to have all of these phonetic changes, while still sharing or comprehending many of the grammatic and morphological innovations of Juba Arabic. For this reason it is sometimes referred to as ‘simple Arabic’.

For example, the Juba Arabic word for girl is ‘binia’ in the singular compared to ‘bint’ in simple or traditional Sudanese Arabic, while the plural ‘banaat’ is the same in all dialects. The word likely would be understood throughout the country, no matter how one said it.

The simple Arabic of the greater Upper Nile region and the Bahr al Ghazal, while closer to the Sudanese Arabic spoken in the north, still retains a degree of intelligibility for Juba Arabic speakers, and vice versa.

Language choice at radio stations

Media in ethnically homogenous states in South Sudan may broadcast exclusively in a native language. In an ethnically diverse state, on the other hand, the use of one local language would be too politically sensitive while the use of multiple local languages would be too practically difficult.

Consequently, they must resort to one or both of the exchange languages while perhaps keeping a token level of third-language programming. A station will either make a deliberate policy choice to exclude local languages, or it will be forced to do so simply by lack of capacity.

Hence in Juba, for example, at most times of day one will struggle to find a station with any Bari language on air, even though much of the population speaks Bari. This is a result of deliberate policy, rather than lack of Bari speakers at local stations.

Alternatively, staff capacity could be the determining factor. For example, a station may not have any staff member competent to write a news bulletin or programme script in the local language. Even if the staff member speaks the language, many local languages do not have strong literary traditions and only recently developed alphabets, requiring staff to be trained and orientated in the use of the the written local language. 

Segregation of information flows

Not only are South Sudanese media limiting the amount of local language programming on air, they are also unable to facilitate effective flows of information among the languages they do use. In terms of staffing and editorial management, radio stations usually have segregated language departments, without systems for inter-departmental flow of information.

News and information produced in Arabic or English will usually not be translated into Murle or Shilluk, for example, nor will information in those languages be brought into Arabic or English. 

Translation is time-intensive work; it is not merely a technical skill but also an editorial act requiring continuous political interpretation, deductive reasoning and literary invention. To do it effectively, media workers need skills in computing, writing, translation and translation management, and ideally also knowledge of techniques for editorial control such as back translation and spot translation.

Without these skills and systems, stations are left to rely on amateur translators to handle information that may be politically sensitive or potentially inflammatory. Rather than bear such risk, many media houses simply take indigenous languages off-air or limit their use to non-controversial purposes.

This is a major issue inhibiting media penetration into rural communities.

Conceptual barriers

Leaving aside the technical complications of working in multiple languages, there are also conceptual and cultural barriers to be overcome in reaching rural speakers of indigenous languages. Most media workers are urban and city-oriented; they do not know what kind of content rural people want to hear, and they may not make an effort.

The point is less that journalists have to produce content for rural peoples to hear, rather that rural peoples have to be able to access media in order for their own voices to be heard. The journalist does not make the message, he is only the messenger; he must facilitate a discourse which includes rural voices, and not from one community alone but across community boundaries.

Politicians are wary of allowing this kind of discourse to take place, owing to a tendency to see media as part of the political arena, subject to sectarian, political or tribal interests rather than above them. This attitude is linked to a fundamental misconception about the role of media in society, overlooking its basic function as a mere conduit for factual reporting and observation and overemphasizing instead its propaganda role with the masses, whether for a political agenda or a development agenda. 

Journalists are meant to be servants of the listeners, not their masters. In the current context, in which rural communities are under duress and in conflict, the first and most fundamental responsibility of journalists is to make these communities understood – to each other, to the rest of the nation and to the international community – by observing conflict and its consequences and reporting it accordingly.

At this point, South Sudanese media are not able to meet that responsibility. Instead, they are being overburdened with political expectations that divert resources from core reporting functions toward functions of political control and thematic messaging.

The people of South Sudan, the vast majority of them rural and poor, need information: factual, observational, plural, non-ideological, non-partisan, inter-communal, cross-conflict, and non-censored information. They are not getting it.

By Daniel van Oudenaren

Photo: A man displaced by violence at the Kator Cathedral in Juba, December 2013 (AFP/Phil Moore)