Crisis in South Sudan: the media’s blind spot

For the state of South Sudan, which gained independence three years after emerging from decades of bloodshed, one would expect the international spotlight to closely follow the development and evolution of the world’s youngest state. However, since it became the world’s 193rd country, it has been neglected by international media coverage. The ongoing civil war, resulting in millions of displaced citizens, the more recent attacks targeting UN facilities, and the cases of rape and sexual violence committed against children have all failed to make it to the headlines. The impending famine might also be ignored.

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Image courtesy of Oxfam East Africa, ©2014, some rights reserved.

The Republic of South Sudan gained independence following a 2011 referendum and 99%[1] vote in favor of secession from the Republic of Sudan. Although the new state achieved independence from the “north,” it soon became clear that the newly formed state faced a number of challenges. South Sudan not only must confront its institutional weaknesses and domestic instability, but also its strained post-secession relations with the Republic of Sudan caused by border and resource disputes. The situation deteriorated when internal tensions reached a boiling point in December 2013. Fighting between government troops and rebel forces erupted, plunging South Sudan into crisis. Violence first broke out in Juba, the capital, and quickly spread to other locations, including the states of Jonglei, Unity, Upper Nile, Lakes and Central Equatoria[2]. The conflict has claimed thousands of lives and driven approximately two million people from their homes, of which about 400,000 have sought refuge in neighboring Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan.[3]

Despite the tragic reality of South Sudan’s ongoing conflict and its lengthy history of violence, Bernt Apeland, General Secretary of UNICEF Norway, asserts that the media inevitably shifts its attention away from the country’s issues whenever another  “hot topic” situations arise. Recently, the conflict in Syria, the expansion of Islamic State, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and the inexorable spread of Ebola have dominated the news cycle and stolen the limelight from South Sudan.[4] Research on international news coverage conducted by Tim Allen and Jean Seaton suggests that of all of the world’s regions, Africa is normally the continent that receives the least attention[5]. This theory has been bolstered by the findings of Benjamin Henning, a senior research fellow from the Oxford University, who has created a series of cartograms visualizing the frequency in which the world’s countries are represented on the The Guardian’s website.

Henning’s map is based on data from 2010 to 2012, and shows that with the exceptions of Libya and Egypt—two countries that were rattled by the Arab Spring—media coverage of the African continent is limited. Sub-Saharan Africa especially received far less media attention from the British news outlet. In many cases, practical obstacles such as underdeveloped infrastructure, political instability and limited budget are factors that make most African states less ‘attractive’ and accessible to Western media. All of these factors are relevant in the case of South Sudan.

The constant technological advancements have provided media with both increasing power and global influence, allowing it to act as what former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan describes as “the sixteenth member of the Security Council.”[6] Media is the main provider of information on global affairs, and Susan D. Moeller claims its profit-driven nature is the root cause of the failure of effective and proper reporting of international affairs. It is important to bear in mind that news is a commodity, and the media will only cover and portray events that appeal to their readers and viewers. A UN-funded research project found that one of the main reasons for global negligence in responding to the 1994 Rwandan genocide was inadequate reporting. A direct correlation has been established between media coverage of humanitarian crises and global action, including public donations, political involvement and foreign aid[7]. The Rwandan atrocity took place while the international community was in the midst of ‘compassion fatigue’, which translated into the lack of media coverage and international responsibility to act.

To make matters worse, since this summer South Sudan has been facing an acute crisis of food insecurity. It is estimated that 7 million people are currently at risk of famine and disease[8]. Without progress on the political negotiations, aid organizations warn of an impending famine by the beginning of next year, which will only be further exacerbated by the rainy season in May. In order to prevent this predicament, the Disaster Emergency Committee estimates that £113 million is required, but to date less than half of the funding has been secured[9]. UNICEF’s Executive Director Anthony Lake urges immediate action when he said, “the world should not wait for famine to be announced while children here are dying each and every day”[10]. Unfortunately, in the case of most African states, it appears that in this day and age a large-scale catastrophe has to occur in order for the media to find a case worthy of reporting. But even then, as the historical record shows, that might not be enough. The question that therefore remains is; how many more thousands of South Sudanese must die, be displaced, raped or starve to death before the Western media gives the conflict in South Sudan the attention it deserves?




[4] B. Apeland (personal communication, October 23, 2014)

[5] Allen, Tim and Jean Seaton. 1999.

[6] Kofi Annan quoted in Schechter 2003:222 Danny Schechter, Media Wars: News at a Time of Terror. Rowman and Littlefield 2003.





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