Nile media debates: getting Sudan in the picture
Yesterday, May 3rd, World Press Freedom Day was celebrated all around the world. Two special – and personal – mentions: the first one for my colleague Iginio Gagliardone (University of Wits, Johannesburg), lead researchers with Nicole Streamlau (University of Oxford) and Monroe Price (University of Pennsylvania), of the UNESCO report World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development 2017/2018 launched yesterday at the UN headquarters in New York. With Iginio and a team of researchers from Egypt, Ethiopia and (soon) Sudan, we are studying the role of media in water conflicts and cooperation in the Eastern Nile basin. That’s why the second mention is for Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, also known as Shawkan, who has been awarded the 2018 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize. Shawkan was arrested in 2013, while covering a street demonstration in Cairo, and he currently faces the death penalty. A gloomy recall of how the issue of accurate information on the Nile cannot be disentangled from the broader and more problematic issue of freedom of expression in the Eastern Nile countries.
On April 18, thanks to the great support by the University of Khartoum (Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences, Centre for Diplomatic Studies, and Water Research Centre) as well as by CEDEJ Khartoum, we organised the seminar Media, science and transboundary cooperation in the Nile basin to discuss with Sudanese journalists and researchers the progress of our study and three videos by Water Journalists Africa on Nile media debates in Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. Our first analysis of the coverage of Nile related events by the international (The Guardian, Al Jazeera), the Ethiopian and the Egyptian press, seems to indicate that the Nile, and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) are often portrayed as bilateral issues between Ethiopia and Egypt. Sudan is often out of the picture, or hardly mentioned.
(Photo by Fredrik Mugira, Water Journalists Africa)
But when Sudan is mentioned and acknowledged with an active role in the controversy, the tones of the narratives in the media coverage tend to get less confrontational, with more references to negotiation and potential solutions for cooperation. This is a track that definitely deserves further exploration through a critical discourse analysis of Nile media coverage. But indeed, Khartoum is often portrayed as a potential mediator between Addis Ababa and Cairo, or as the “kingmaker” in a new Nile hydropolitics, shifting from a traditional privileged relation with Egypt towards an alliance with Ethiopia, because of the benefits that Sudan might receive from the GERD in terms of increased control of the Nile floods to harness its irrigation potential. But is this really the Sudanese national interest? Or whose interests? Why Nile waters should be used to grow cereals and fodder to be exported perhaps in Saudi Arabia? As explained in the last episode of the podcast “The sources of the Nile” by Tamer Abd Alkreem, anthropologist at the University of Khartoum, the Nile shapes different identities and cultures in Sudan. These identities contributes to competing and contradictory claims over the use and distribution of the river’s water, as recalled by the controversies around the many dams that have been built and that are currently built in Sudan. Here you can listen to a very interesting talk to Tamer.
Once we unpack the notion of “national interest”, and we acknowledge the existence of a plurality of claims over the Nile within each country, the next step is to understand whose voices get heard in the public debate. That’s why in the content analysis of articles on Nile media debates, we try to account for the actors who are represented and mentioned in the articles: politicians, public officials (like diplomats or officers from line ministers), experts and scientists, representatives of civil society, and ordinary citizens. At a first glance the list looks straightforward. But when we tried to apply it to code the articles we sampled, we immediately realised how the boundaries between an expert and a public officials might be blurred: what about scholars or researchers serving as technical advisors to their respective governments in international negotiations? Indeed a confirmation of the fact that the technical is often political too.
This also points at the need to reflect on how the media present these voices: what does it mean portraying someone as technical expert instead of political or partisan voice? The common sense and the media tend to consider science as neutral. This assumption was challenged by several participants at the seminar in Khartoum. Both researchers and journalist discussed the impossibility of being neutral when dealing with issues related to the Nile, which heavily influences national identities and allegiances in all the three countries.
Interestingly, since the beginning of our project we have been focusing on professional differences between journalists and researchers, trying to understand our to bridge them. In Khartoum, a few commonalities between the two categories become clearer – also because we realised that sometimes professional trajectories bridged between the two. As said, for both journalists and researchers it is impossible to be fully neutral. The work of both these professions is about representing and interpreting the reality. We, the researchers, manufacture our sampling to study and represent nature and society. Similarly, journalists construct their stories by choosing who to interview, which numbers to quote among the many possibilities they have. Does this imply that we cannot longer trust journalism and science? I don’t think so. The most important lessons I brought back from Khartoum is that, once acknowledged the impossibility of being neutral, good scientists and good journalists should strive to legitimise their representations of reality by justifying the process behind those representations (methods, sources, assumptions, eventual bias), including its limits. It might sound like the ABC of proper journalism and science, but I think it is always worth remembering it. In these journalists and scientists, we trust!