New research shows serious African media deficit exists – the land beyond broadcast and other media

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Africans in the city increasingly have access to a wide range of media but those in rural areas or conflict zones do not. Some areas have access to little or no media. This media deficit means that those who lack access probably understand less and have very little to measure their opinions against. Russell Southwood looks at new research from South Sudan that identifies the scale of this problem in one country.

The research we carried out for the New Venture Fund in 2014 (see right hand column for free downloads) showed that across a diverse range of countries with better Internet access those interviewed for in-depth focus groups and one-to-one interviews felt that two things had changed over the last five years. Firstly, there was a great deal more media available to them and secondly, the existence of the Internet made this greater diversity available to them more quickly.

But this article is about those Africans that sit at the other end of the spectrum. In 2015 Internews and Forcier Consulting carried out a survey of media use in South Sudan titled We’re Still Listening: A Survey of the Media Landscape in the Accessible Areas of South Sudan in 2015 which was released in mid March this year:
The sample for this research is not nationally representative but based on those areas accessible to researchers.

South Sudan has faced a civil war with the Government in the North for many years and now has its own civil war that continues to rumble away from the recent peace accord. In addition to this civil conflict, South Sudan faces a significant number of physical and infrastructure challenges.

There is only one bridge across the River Nile at Juba. The river divides the country in two. Tug boats and barges ply the river as far south as Juba, providing a vital trade and passenger transport link with Sudan to the north. Most of the dirt roads which link South Sudan’s far-flung towns become impassible for five months of the year during the rainy season between May and September. Much of the country becomes completely inaccessible during this period. Things like physically distributing newspapers and maintaining a national transmission infrastructure of any kind is clearly very difficult in these circumstances.

There is almost no electrical grid operational in South Sudan that means that all power is sourced from generators. Access to reliable power is essential for operating televisions and is clearly one of several constraining factors on national TV viewing. There also low levels of literacy although the younger population has higher levels of literacy.

English is not widely spoken: of the 41% speaking English, , 91% said they could understand some or all of a letter written in English. The other two main languages are Juba Arabic (43%) and Classical Arabic (25%). Some idea of the challenges raised by first language coverage can be shown by the results of an earlier survey in 2013 survey in Juba, Malakal and Wau. When those surveyed were asked what language would make their radio or TV experience more understandable, the five main languages cited were as follows: Amharic (21.9%); Bari (18.4%); Dinka (18%); Shilluk (15.8%); and Nuer (15.1%).

The country’s national TV broadcaster is SSTVR which also operates a series of radio stations. Transmission coverage for television is very limited.

There are three main radio players: Radio Miraya (set up by the United Nations Mission In Sudan with the support of Fondation Hirondelle); the Catholic Radio Network; and the radio stations of the Government station SSTVR.

Radio Miraya operates relay stations across South Sudan using FM and short wave. The Catholic Radio network also has near national reach, operating a satellite distribution centre from Juba to stations across the country. 

SSTVR is the third main radio player in the country and operates a network of FM radio stations including Radio Wau, FM98 in Rumbek and Radio Malakal. The radio stations broadcast in a mixture of Arabic and English with some output in local languages.

Even with radio, the country suffers from something of a “media deficit”. An earlier 2007 survey from Hirondelle showed that even the most popular stations were only getting between 9-16% of audience share. 59% of respondents said radio was a source of information but only 45% said it was their most important source. The 2015 survey from Internews of accessible areas found that 51% had ever listened to radio and that there was a 38% weekly reach. By contrast only 24% of the sample had ever watched TV and it had a weekly reach of 13%.

The point made above about there being a media deficit is well illustrated by a graphic from the Internews survey:

 Internews survey map Issue 2039

The yellow segments of the pie charts show that between 20-50% of the population in the different areas surveyed had no access to media and similar proportions had low access to media. The definition of high access to media is the respondent having access to four or five types of media or device.

The implications of having a country where between a quarter to a half of the population have little or no access to media are all too apparent. People rely on word of mouth and have no competing information to compare this to. There is no way to take part in any kind of national conversation and no means to make your voice heard.

A lot of time is spent on getting wider Internet access in Africa and from time to time there has been talk that broadband should be a citizens’ right. Almost as fundamental (and not unconnected with the idea of Internet as a right) is the right of citizens to have access to knowledge through media.

It would be easy for many African countries at this point to protest that they are not like South Sudan and I will be the first to make that point for you. However, every African country has some parts where there are no media. Furthermore, there are a wider set of areas where the media diet consists of a single state or community radio station.

It is time that those interested in the development of media came together with those interested in the roll-out of communications networks to ensure that the percentage of population with little or no access to media over the next five years is substantially reduced.
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