The hoards of journalists who parachuted in to southern Sudan to cover the referendum earlier this month produced the most intense media spotlight that the semi-autonomous region, and perhaps the whole country, has ever had.
Waiting for permits in the Southern Sudan Referendum Bureau, I struck up conversations with an Indian television crew, a grizzled Norwegian journalist, and a young freelancer born in Kenya who had traveled to Juba from London to “give it a go” as a foreign correspondent. Al Jazeera had film crews and correspondents in most of the 10 southern Sudanese states. Enough co-workers traveling with George Clooney mentioned fielding interview requests from agencies as far flung, and seemingly disconnected, from southern Sudan as the Colombian national radio station.
Photos of jubilant voters and inked fingers make for great news stories, and in light of Sudan’s decades of civil war that led to this point, this vote was an even more emotional one than most. The referendum was a rare good-news story from Sudan, and it was exciting to see the historic moment covered by outlets that don’t often report on Africa and reach audiences who might not often follow developments in this part of the world. The referendum even got a mention from Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show."
But the coming months in Sudan are when things are going to really get interesting and, many analysts and Sudan-based journalists agree, when the threat of violence is highest.
As many commentators have pointed out, the list of issues left to be resolved between the northern and southern governments is long, and in many ways more complicated and sensitive than most of the other arrangements the two sides have had to make.
“If the tried-and-true Sudanese tradition of brinkmanship prevails in the coming months, negotiations to see the secession of Southern Sudan will conclude in the summer, close to the July 9 deadline set by the 2005 peace agreement,” Maggie Fick wrote in Foreign Policy this week. That brinkmanship approach to negotiating, combined with such sensitive issues as what to do about Abyei and who should have rights to citizenship in North and South, are bound to make for some tense times ahead.
A month before the referendum, even two weeks before, many questioned whether the January 9 start date for voting would be met. President Obama has gotten a lot of credit for elevating Sudan policy to the highest levels of his administration and thus contributing to the smooth referendum. Activists in the United States continue to make Sudan a political issue that U.S. leaders have to pay attention to, rather than an obscure foreign policy matter.
International media have also played an important role, by making it apparent that President Bashir and his government are under far more public scrutiny than usual, at a time when they are trying hard to convince Western governments—the U.S. in particular—to normalize relations.
It’s true that closed-door negotiations are far less visually appealing to an international news media keen on sensory overload. But as Juba-based journalists can attest, with a little digging and context, the high-stakes, dramatic stories will be there in Sudan in the coming months. This fragile period before South Sudan’s formal independence on July 9 is when the media spotlight is going to be especially important.