South Sudan: So many lessons to learn from

OF the 30 or so African heads of state at last week’s inauguration of South Sudan’s birth as a nation only a few could link this event to the disgrace of Britain’s News of the World newspaper.
Yet, although the link may be tenuous to some, to others its relevance must be as stark as the Nile River.
South Sudan must, from the beginning, vow to allow for a free, unfettered and privately-owned media — radio, television and newspapers.
A neighbour, Egypt, had no independent media to speak of in Anwar Sadat’s and Hosni Mubarak’s time.
A famous newspaper, Al Ahram, and its long-serving editor, Mohamed Heykal, were both respected. But they did not represent or advocate change.
They counted for nothing when the youth of Egypt decided to bring down the monolithic, geriatric leadership.
Today, the task of rebuilding Egypt is slow and painful. You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to decide that if there had been a thoroughly free media nothing of the sort would have occurred.
Egypt’s media landscape was not too dissimilar from others on the continent. Sudan was no different. Uganda may have something different, but the truth is that Yoweri Museveni clings to power on the basis of a stranglehold on what exists of any media in the country.
He, like most of the leaders in Juba last week, will chuckle at the events leading to the cessation of publication of The News of the World, the best-selling newspaper in Britain, and the best-selling newspaper published in English in the world.
That is not a mean distinction. Rupert Murdoch, a media baron in the mould of the people who founded such British media empires as The Daily Express, The Observer, The Daily Mail and The Times of London, is one of the wealthiest men in the world.
He built his fortune on newspapers and TV. To most African leaders, the scandal which led to the closure of The News of the World provides powerful evidence in favour of government control of the media.
Most media control is in government hands. Only in South Africa do the independent media still thrive. There is still no government newspaper, 17 years after the end of apartheid — touch wood.
But the News of the World scandal provides most African leaders with solid evidence that the independent media is destructive to governments.
David Cameron may have to use all his political skills to escape the contagion resulting in Murdoch’s name being dragged through the mud.
You can just hear a typical African leader chortling: “That’s what comes from allowing private enterprise to enter such a sensitive area as media control. Only we must be in charge, to guarantee . . . blah blah blah.”
The leaders of the new republic of the South Sudan should resist this temptation. One of Africa’s problems is the “control freak” syndrome.
It started with the birth of independence in 1957. The one-party, one-leader and one-newspaper-radio-TV station madness began a trend that swept through the continent as colonialism ended.
The colonialists didn’t help matters: they too were control freaks. In South Africa, the names of three editors stand out as victims of the ferocious opposition to dissent exemplified by the architects of apartheid — Laurence Gandar, Percy Qoboza and Donald Wood.
In Zimbabwe, Willie Musarurwa must  be regarded as a martyr of media freedom, although his burial at Heroes’ Acre in Harare must have been  expected to transform his image into one of a nationalist who supported the struggle even after some of his colleagues betrayed the principles of plurality which had anchored it.
In Zambia, Kelvin Mlenga and Richard Hall ought to be remembered in the same context: they were marked as journalists whose independence of mind was considered almost treasonous to the dictatorial designs of the leadership.
We all join in celebrating the emergence into full nationhood of the people of South Sudan.
John Garang, wherever he may be today, could afford to smile as he looks at the country, for which he paid with his life, joining others as a respected member.
I doubt that he would condone a system led by control freaks.

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