The janjaweed militiamen are used “by a racist regime that is in many respects worse than the apartheid regime in South Africa, which at least had the dignity not to employ rape as a tactic of suppression.” Did this scathing remark appear in the New York Times or Le Nouvel Observateur, two newspapers known for criticising the Sudanese government? No, surprising as it may seem, it was made in an editorial in the Citizen, a Khartoum daily, on 18 March. And there was no angry reaction from the government.
After a fact-finding visit to Sudan from 17 to 22 March, Reporters Without Borders today issued a report entitled “Darfur: An investigation into a tragedy's forgotten actors,” in which the press freedom organisation tries to contribute new elements to the international debate about the tragedy which the peoples of western Sudan have been enduring.
The Reporters Without Borders team found that the Sudanese press, like the country's society as a whole, is both active and diverse. Even in Darfur, the team was able to talk to members of a very real civil society, one that is aware of the unfolding tragedy and the challenges it must face. 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.
Contrary to the prevailing media image, Reporters Without Borders found that 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 reality is much more complicated and often contradictory.
Like many wars around the world, Darfur's crisis poses complex coverage problems for both the national and international media. 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 (which the report describes).
These difficulties explain why Sudan is seen as a country closed to the world, one where every possible kind of massacre could take place in secrecy.
The international media react to these obstructions by approaching their coverage of Darfur in a spirit of “resistence” 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, Reporters Without Borders recommends that the Sudanese government should 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.