Providing Public Health Information in South Sudan

“We can be ambassadors within our country, producing well-researched reports for our listeners and readers. Knowledgeable reporting on health issues will save lives here.”

Dhieu Williams is a Juba-based newspaper journalist and he’s busy on his laptop setting up social media groups to link up twelve reporters from across South Sudan who’ve just completed an intensive training course in how to cover health issues. 

He knows it’ll be a challenge because South Sudan is burdened by – in many cases – the worst health indicators in the world.

Dhieu’s enthusiasm is clear to see. “We now know that reporting on topics like safe childbirth is crucial and that many medical professionals want to share their knowledge and skills with as many people as they can.”

Through a unique health journalism fellowship scheme led by Internews with support from the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) in the Netherlands, Dhieu has been able to gain a valuable insight into the life and work of doctors, nurses and community health workers. 

The fellowship was designed to offer journalists step-by-step familiarization with key issues and themes in public health, with a specific focus on sexual and reproductive health, and to equip them with grounding for future specialization in health journalism, providing much needed information to the communities they serve.

Over the course of three months the group met in Juba for three week-long workshops led by Internews’ Global Health advisor, Ida Jooste. She enlisted the support of medical professionals from agencies including WHO, UNICEF, the International Medical Corps as well South Sudan’s Ministry of Health. Presentations and workshop sessions often ended with energetic discussions about how crucial it is to report health issues. According to International Medical Corps, South Sudan has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world, with 2,054 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.

“Seeing is believing,” says Dhieu. “Our visit to the nursing and midwifery school at the Juba Teaching Hospital gave us an insight into how our government is prepared to face health challenges head on. We had the privilege of talking to medical students who are determined to reduce the numbers of mothers and babies who are dying.”

Rebecca Lochano works for Internews’ radio station in Malakal “Women here die in childbirth, and the risks are higher if they stay at home. I’m determined to use Nile FM to provide information, education and to increase knowledge about health,” she said.

Deng Korchiek knows that everything he produces for his radio program broadcast on Internews’ network of radio stations across South Sudan needs to be accurate because listeners rely on the information they hear.

After the first Health Journalism Fellowship workshop he returned home and immediately called his colleagues together for a special lunch time staff meeting.  He used notes from his training to share his new knowledge.

“I gained a lot from meeting the community health workers from the Protection of Civilians’ area in Juba when they came and talked about their work.  I’m now more confident going to ask doctors in my region about these issues,” he says.

The journalists say they learned a lot during the fellowship scheme, and not just understanding more about health. The training workshops included sessions on reporting numbers and statistics, and they agree this has boosted their confidence when it comes to interpreting complex data from health organizations. 

In a community that is sensitive about certain health topics, a journalist is often caught up in the middle of being culturally sensitive and telling a story that will help their community.

Manyang works as a radio community correspondent in Juba and he’s looking forward to staying in contact with his nationwide network of health journalist colleagues, “some of the group have already been in contact with me, asking questions and seeking my advice.  I was really impressed with that.”

Through the fellowship scheme, each participant has been awarded a small grant to enable them to travel away from their newsrooms to research news features on topics focusing on maternal and child health in particular. They’ll be supported by a mentor as they produce their stories which will then be ready for publication and broadcast. The trainings took place before the most recent outbreak of violence in Juba, and the need for health reporting continues.

And Dhieu is determined to keep the momentum going; he’s coordinating the social network activity for the newly-formed Health Journalists in South Sudan group, ensuring that they can share as much information as possible, “we count ourselves lucky to have been selected for the fellowship and we now have the opportunity to develop as experts in covering health stories across the whole of South Sudan.”