As civil war in the Darfur Region of Sudan has been seen as "one of the worst nightmares in recent history," the world's attention has been drawn upon the country's current humanitarian crisis. Yet as turmoil and tragedy inflict the country, a new report from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) of an active and diverse press offers a new perspective on the country's complex situation.
From 17 to 22 March, RSF sent a team to Khartoum and El-Fasher on a fact-finding mission to meet Sudan's forgotten actors in attempts to "contribute new elements to the international debate about the tragedy which the peoples of western Sudan have been enduring." In a report entitled Darfur: An Investigation into a Tragedy's Forgotten Actors, the team from RSF states that the Sudanese press, like the country's society as a whole, is both active and diverse.
According to the report, the team was able to talk to members of a real civil society, one that is aware of the unfolding tragedy and the challenges it must face. The report states that "the newspapers published in Khartoum are also very diverse and reflect the voices of Sudanese human rights activists, university researchers and other civil society actors, voices that find it hard to make themselves heard outside Sudan."
The RSF team offered a critique of the current prevailing media image of Sudan. "Sudan is not a land of massacres, a terra incognita in which the 21st century's first genocide is unfolding in Darfur, out of sight, without foreigners reporting what is happening, without any Sudanese voicing criticism," the report says. "The reality is much more complicated and often contradictory."
Similar to other wars around the world, Darfur's crisis poses complex coverage problems for both the national and international media. In response to the problems in Sudan RSF's report explains that "the intrinsic problems, the large number of armed factions, the absence of a 'front line,' the hostile nature of the terrain and lack of a distinction between combatants and civilians, are deliberately compounded by the "bureaucratic fence" which the government in Khartoum has erected around the war zone to try to "regulate"and influence the work of the press." According to RSF, these difficulties presented by the report explain why Sudan is seen as a country closed to the world, one where every possible kind of massacre could take place in secrecy, it explains.
"The international media react to these obstructions by approaching their coverage of Darfur in a spirit of 'resistance' to a government perceived as 'hostile,'" the report concludes. When reporting the worst atrocities, foreign journalists may sometimes offer a stereotyped image of Sudan focused solely on the suffering in Darfur, without taking account of the historical causes of the crisis or the solutions proposed by Sudanese civil society, whose very existence, diversity and commitment seem unknown to many of them."
In its conclusions, the RSF report recommends that the Sudanese government "take all necessary measures to open up the country to the foreign press and to increase a dynamic civil society's freedom or action; that international organisations should take account of local realities, above all by supporting Sudanese civil society, and should overhaul their communication methods; and that the international media should not neglect the 'forgotten actors' of the crisis, in order to portray Sudan in all its diversity and help it to resolve its internal contradictions."