Date of Publication: 23 October 2001




On 14 December 2000 the Dutch government officially launched the 'Voice of Hope' radio station, a station broadcasting into Sudan and aimed at a southern Sudanese audience. This station is funded by the Dutch Ministry for Development Cooperation, the Catholic grouping Pax Christi, the Dutch national radio world service and the Dutch Christian broadcasting company NCRV. Effective day-to day-control of the radio was vested in the New Sudan Council of Churches. 'Voice of Hope' began broadcasting later that month.

It is instructive to note that the Dutch Minister for Development Cooperation, Eveline Herfkens, in announcing the launch, stated:

"The Netherlands is actively committed to the difficult search for peace in Sudan...With a few interruptions, Sudan has been suffering from the violence of war since August 1955. A struggle between successive governments in Khartoum and rebels in the South. And not only between north and south. Also within the north itself. And within the south. Many cultures, many languages, many religions. An incredibly complex conflict." (1)

She stated that the Dutch government strategy was "to help where possible to increase the population's self-sufficiency. And hence the input to a process of peace and reconciliation": "Helping to pay for Voice of Hope fits in excellently with this approach. Southern Sudan is very isolated...So radio is an extremely important medium. It can contribute to the creation of a 'civil society'. Particularly at very lowest level. Hence the 'mission statement' says that the project wants to give a voice to the voiceless. To enable them to play an active part in the peace process, or to help get it off the ground...Radio allows the people to hear their own views...The radio project is not an isolated project, but part of a wider project entitled 'Strengthening civil society inside southern Sudan'".

She did acknowledge "we must tread carefully with activities designed to foster peace. The Netherlands attaches great importance to a neutral role in Sudan, so that it can engage in an open dialogue with all the parties...If any party in the conflict has the impression that an initiative supports one party or agenda more than others it is doomed to failure. That risk is also inherent to Voice of Hope. The station focuses exclusively on the South. And it is run by organisations that not all Sudanese parties regard as neutral." The minister specifically warned: "No propaganda. That is the clear agreement". (2)

It is clear, however, after almost one year of broadcasting that 'Voice of Hope' has been a disappointment and embarrassment to the Dutch government, having been party to, amongst other things, blatant anti- government propaganda. This project was indeed deeply questionable for at least two reasons from the very beginning.

The New Sudan Council of Churches and the SPLA

In the first instance, the Dutch government's choice of partners in the venture was ill-advised. The New Sudan Council of Churches (NSCC), exists within areas of southern Sudan controlled by the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). The NSCC was formed in February 1990 from Catholic and Episcopal churches in southern Sudan. Despite the Dutch government's willingness to leave the Voice of Hope in the hands of the NSCC, the extent of its independence from the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in southern Sudan has been questionable from its very inception. Even its use of the expression "New Sudan" directly
echoes words and themes central to SPLA terminology. (3) As the respected human rights organisation, African Rights, has pointed out: "The NSCC could not have been created without the support of John Garang". African Rights further quoted "a leading churchman" as stating that: "The Movement was behind the formation of the NSCC." Garang himself, in addressing a NSCC General Assembly publicly stated that he saw the NSCC as the "spiritual wing of the Movement".(4) It is an
organisation religiously tied to a distinct minority within southern Sudan. The NSCC is at best a group willingly identified with the SPLA and at best a body cowed into submission by SPLA intimidation - with the end result that it is seen as a vehicle for SPLA positions such as they are.

It should be noted that the SPLA has been described by 'The New York Times', no friend of the Sudanese government, as "brutal and predatory" and "an occupying army, killing, raping and pillaging". SPLA leader John Garang has been described by the same newspaper as a "pre-eminent war criminal". (5) In December 1999, Human Rights Watch stated that: "The SPLA has a history of gross abuses of human rights and has not made any effort to establish accountability. Its abuses today remain serious." Established and respected humanitarian organisations such as CARE, Save the Children, World Vision, Church World Service and the American
Refugee Committee have jointly stated that the SPLA is guilty of "the most serious human rights abuses". (6) Agence France Press also reported that: "Much of the relief food going to more than a million famine victims in rebel-held areas of southern Sudan is ending up in the hands of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA)" (7)While the New Sudan Council of Churches is publicly committed to speaking on behalf of southern Sudanese people, particularly in respect of political, civil and human rights, the NSCC has been deafeningly silent on all these and many other gross violations of human rights by the SPLA throughout southern Sudan. Leaving aside its politicised origins, it is only fair to note as African Rights has also stated, that the NSCC exists "in a society which is dominated by armed...movements",
and that its leaders are "personally vulnerable".

It is a matter of record, for example, that the chairman of the New Sudan Council of Churches, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Torit, Bishop Paride Taban, has, in the words of African Rights, been subjected to "vicious treatment". He has been imprisoned and publicly humiliated by the SPLA. African Rights also reported that nuns under his care had been raped by SPLA forces. Church property has been looted or destroyed. (8) Given this level of intimidation, it is perhaps unsurprising that any
NSCC criticism of human rights abuses has been mostly directed at the government. This has been reflected in 'Voice of Hope' output. The inability or disinclination of the New Sudan Council of Churches to speak out on the appalling human rights violations amongst their very own parishioners can only but detract from their objectivity and reliability as commentators and witnesses on Sudanese affairs, and their ability to run a neutral radio station.

The New Sudan Council of Churches, forced or otherwise, has certainly followed a pro-SPLA line. African Rights quotes the leader of another rival southern Sudanese political grouping as saying that: "As a structure, NSCC is behind Garang. He was the one who started it, and they are still close to him. Their resources are almost all channelled to his areas." (9) This is a clear example of the political fragmentation of politics within southern Sudan, and the fact that in supporting the NSCC and 'Voice of Hope' the Dutch government is merely supporting one of several southern Sudanese political and ethnic groupings.(10)

In addition to identifying with one particular political faction, and one particular religious minority within southern Sudan, the New Sudan Council of Churches is also essentially identified with one ethnic group amongst many within southern Sudan. The simple fact is that the SPLA is seen as essentially a Dinka-based organisation. 'The Economist', for example, has referred to the SPLA as "little more than an armed gang of Dinkas".(11) The SPLA's ethnic cleansing in parts of southern Sudan has also been documented. (12) John Prendergast, a former American government specialist on Sudan cited one observer as saying "The overwhelmingly 'Nilotic' character of the early SPLA was...enough to alienate many Equatorians" and personally states that the SPLA is seen in Equatoria as "an army of occupation." (13) The NSCC is therefore identified with a particularly oppressive Dinka grouping within a Sudan divided by deep ethnic rivalries.

Despite the fact that it is clearly compromised, the New Sudan Council of Churches is presented to, and accepted by, many outsiders as an independent body in southern Sudan. This state of affairs is not a healthy one. Given its political affinity with the SPLA, and a marked reluctance to criticise the SPLA to any meaningful extent, for international observers to unreservedly accept NSCC perspectives on human rights, political developments and peace in Sudan can only but serve to further distort an already muddied picture. At best the NSCC serves as an apologist for the SPLA, and at worst a docile propagandist.

Selective Coverage

Even a cursory examination of the 'Voice of Hope' web-site on a key issue such as human rights amply illustrates the unacceptable slant of those running the radio station. On human rights 'Voice of Hope' has reproduced what can only but be described as anti-government propaganda. Virtually all the postings within the radio's human rights section are by Mr Eric Reeves, a crass anti-government campaigner based in the United States. Not only is Reeves overtly anti-government but he has
been repeatedly criticised for deeply questionable - in some cases overtly Islamophobic - sources, factual inaccuracies and plain untruths. (14) Not one instance of human rights abuse by the SPLA is listed. This is quite some way away from the Dutch government's claims that 'Voice of Hope' would "report on human rights...Because even within southern Sudan there is misunderstanding and division. Information presented well can contribute to mutual understanding".(15) African Rights' study 'Great Expectations: The Civil Roles of the Churches in Southern Sudan', placed on record the fatal limitations on the New Sudan Council of Churches -
limitations all too evident in 'Voice of Hope''s content, especially regarding human rights:

"Church leaders in the New Sudan recall the anti-church stand of the SPLA in its early days, and observe continuing repression against dissenters. Even the most courageous Church leaders have been selective in their criticisms, choosing not to name certain commanders responsible for abuses." (16)

Undermining Peace in Sudan?

The second reason for questioning the Dutch government's close involvement in this project is a simple one of common sense. While the Dutch government has publicly recognised that there are several religions in Sudan and particularly southern Sudan, The Netherlands appears to have decided to fund those associated with only one of these religions. From a religious point of view the Dutch government's funding and support for 'Voice of Hope' merely serves to distort what is an
already incredibly complex situation. It empowers one particular religious and political minority within a collection of minorities in southern Sudan. Many Sudanese - north and south - are further disturbed that other partners in 'Voice of Hope' are Pax Christi - an anti-Sudanese campaigning group and NCRV - a Dutch Christian media channel.

Nationally, seventy percent of the Sudanese population is Muslim, animist religions are followed by 25 percent and Christians account for five percent of the population.(17) The 1994-95 Economist Intelligence Unit country profile of Sudan states that Christians made up 15 percent of the southern population. This figure is also cited in Human Rights Watch Africa's 1996 report on Sudan.(18) It is claimed as many southern Sudanese may be adherents to Islam. By far the most southern Sudanese, some sixty percent of the population, however, are neither Christian nor Muslim - they are animists. The NSCC can therefore at most hope to represent about 15 percent of southern Sudanese. Its political association with the SPLA also ties it to one of several southern Sudanese political factions.

Far from giving a "voice to the voiceless people inside southern Sudan", 'Voice of Hope' merely articulates the narrow, anti-government views of only one section of southern Sudan's body politic and religious community. For all its stated concerns about "neutrality", the Dutch government is in danger of undermining its, undoubtedly sincere, attempts to foster peace in Sudan. It is clear that the 'Voice of Hope' project demonstrably "supports one party or agenda more than others":
the extent of its failure is becoming self-evident.


1 'Herfkens Opens New Radio Station for Southern Sudan: "Voice of Hope" Wants to Promote Peace from the Ground Up', 15 December 2000. Available on Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs web-site at http://bznet/Content.asp?Key=405326&Pad=400046,301230

2 Ibid.

3 See, for example, 'On the New Sudan', the SPLM/SPLA Department of Information, a Background Paper presented to the Conference 'On the Management of the Crisis in the Sudan', Bergen, Norway, February 1989. Available at

4 'Great Expectations: The Civil Roles of the Churches in Southern Sudan', Discussion Paper No.6, African Rights, London, April 1995, p.29.

5 'Misguided Relief to Sudan', Editorial, 'The New York Times', 6 December 1999.

6 'Humanitarian Organizations Oppose Plan Providing Food to Sudanese Rebels', Press Release, InterAction, American Council for Voluntary International Action, Washington-DC, 30 November, 1999.

7 'Aid for Sudan ending up with SPLA: Relief Workers', Article by Agence France Press on 21 July, 1998 at 08:23:48.

8 'Food and Power in Sudan', African Rights, London, 1997, p.332.

9 'Great Expectations: The Civil Roles of the Churches in Southern Sudan', op. cit., p.30.

10 There are a large number of southern Sudanese political movements, groupings and factions. These break down along ethnic, regional and political lines. They include the Sudanese United Democratic Salvation Front (UDSF), SPLM/A (Bahr el-Ghazal Group), the SPLM/A Bor Group, the Nuba Mountains United SPLM/A, the Equatoria Defence Force, the Union of Sudanese African Parties (USAP) and the SPLA-United group.

11 'The Economist', March 1998.

12 'Growing Friction in Rebel-Held Southern Sudan', News Article by BBC Online, 9 June, 1999 Published at
16:36 GMT.

13 John Prendergast, 'Crisis Response: Humanitarian Band-Aids in Sudan and Somalia', Pluto Press, London, 1997, p.57.

14 See, for example, 'The Return of the "Ugly American": Eric Reeves and Sudan', European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London, November 2000. Available at See also 'Smith College, Eric Reeves and Sudan: What Price a Reputation?', European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, August 2001, available at ;'Eric Reeves, The World Food Programme and Displacement' European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London, 23 February 2001; 'Allegations of Oil Development Displacement Assessed Against Independent Sources', European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London, March 2001; 'Eric Reeves' Credibility on Sudan Further Damaged by British Satellite Picture Analysis of Sudanese Oil Fields', Media Monitors Network, May 2001; 'Eric Reeves Against Africa', Media Monitors Network, May 2001; 'Eric Reeves, Sudan, Displacement and Double Standards', European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London, 15 June 2001

15 'Herfkens Opens New Radio Station for Southern Sudan: "Voice of Hope" Wants to Promote Peace from the Ground Up', 15 December 2000. Available on Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs web-site at http://bznet/Content.asp?Key=405326&Pad=400046,301230

16 'Great Expectations: The Civil Roles of the Churches in Southern Sudan', op. cit., p.32.

17 See, for example, the Dutch Foreign Ministry website on .

18 'Behind the Red Line: Political Repression in Sudan', Human Rights Watch/Africa, New York, 1996, p.193.

Espac Published by The European - Sudanese Public Affairs Council Copyright © David Hoile 2005
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