South Sudan: Reporting humanitarian crisis in the world’s youngest country

As the greatest humanitarian crisis since 1945 unfolds, the international community is struggling to respond to widespread starvation and human need. One of the most affected countries is also the world’s youngest: South Sudan, where the UN says 4.9 million people – or 40% of South Sudan’s population – are “in need of urgent food, agriculture and nutrition assistance”. The response to this crisis was the topic of a panel talk on 22 March arranged by the Frontline Club, Unicef UK and Arete.

By Jon Eilenberg

William Patey, the former British ambassador in Sudan, chaired the panel, which included Unicef’s Marianna Zaichykova, political analyst Mawan Muortat, journalist Peter Martell and DFID’s Chris Bold.

From left to right: Patey, Zaichykova, Muortat, Martell and Bold.

There are no easy solutions to the conflict-driven famine in South Sudan, the panellists stressed. Warring political factions have escalated the violence in recent years, and peaceful agreement seems unlikely. Thousands have left their lands to escape the fighting. Today the second largest city in South Sudan is a UN refugee camp.

Despite the number of people affected, international awareness remains low. One big challenge is the lack of media coverage. According to journalist Peter Martell, reporting is limited because “it’s a really tough country to operate in” in terms of logistics and safety. Bad infrastructure and difficulties getting visas keep reporters from getting to key sites in the region, and the lack of protection puts individual journalists at risk.

The media focus on conflicts closer to Europe, such as Syria, also plays a role. UNICEF’s Zachykova described trying to raise awareness about the situation in South Sudan for ten years with little success.

When the UN recently declared famine the international media began to pick up on the story. But this comes with other pressures – such as the demand for what Martell called “dry and dusty famine” stories, making reference to Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer prize-winning photo of a child and a vulture, taken in South Sudan.

In addition, local journalists have been targeted in the war, creating a chilling effect. South Sudan is currently number 140 on the World Press Freedom Index, and radio stations and newspapers in the country have been shut down. Journalists have been imprisoned and even murdered.

The panel event started with a short film, and was accompanied by a photo exhibition which vividly conveyed the human cost of the South Sudan conflict. International journalism, it is hoped, will start to do the same.

Refugee children in Juba. According to UNICEF, children are among those most afflicted by the conflict. Source: WikiMedia Commons