Mentoring media managers in South Sudan: starting conversations, finding solutions

By: Ron Waksman

Six days is just long enough to absorb the initial shock of arriving in Africa, an experience that is an all-out assault on all of your senses. My 22-hour journey ended when my Ethiopian Airlines Q400 bounced hard then settled on a crumbling runway that would likely be closed to air traffic anywhere else in the world. I stepped off the Bombardier-made plane that delivered me from Addis Ababa and inhaled a breath of 41 degree Celsius air. Exhausted and completely out of my element, I did what most of the passengers on my flight did, blindly follow other people who seemed to know their way across the chaotic ramp.

Jets at Juba Airport (Ron Waksman/JHR)

In Juba, the planes are parked like they used to be parked on game nights in the lot across from Maple Leaf Gardens, no one leaves until the guy blocking you decides to leave. I confess to being an aviation geek. If they made an air freshener or a cologne that smelled like jet fuel I’d buy it. Which is why I almost got whiplash on my way to the terminal after I spotted a dozen or so incredible Soviet-era heavy-lift cargo aircraft that I’ve only ever seen in pictures on the internet. They only fly in Africa where the climate helps preserve them and emissions standards are well, shall we say, more relaxed.

I was warned weeks before I left that people in South Sudan don’t like having their picture taken. That apparently goes double for soldiers and security officials. As I stared at these cold war era relics, I reflexively raised my camera and pointed it in the direction of the nearest Ilyushin-76. All I could think about was showing the pictures to my eldest son who is in training to become a commercial pilot.

Six days is one of JHR’s shorter ‘missions’ to Africa, but after clicking the shutter just a couple of times I came this close to becoming the first JHR trainer to arrive and be deported in under four minutes.  A 7-foot tall security officer came up behind me and yanked me backward by the camera strap so hard I almost fell to the ground. In broken English, with angrily contorted facial expressions and a death grip on my camera strap he fully intended to take my camera away. The journalist in me took over as I regained my footing and got into a tug of war with the security giant as he barked demands to know who gave me permission to take pictures. I muttered something about being an aviation enthusiast just trying to take pictures of rare Russian aircraft. For some reason that was lost on him.

Just then, the jet lag, oppressive heat and adrenaline released control of my senses long enough for me to have an ‘aha’ moment. It occurred to me that not every one of these vintage Russian cargo jets was toting powdered milk and flour, some of them, without registrations, were likely hauling weapons. In South Sudan everyone has access to an AK-47, including traffic cops.

Lucky for me, a U.N. peacekeeper from Uganda came to my rescue. The Ugandans are responsible for perimeter security at the airport. The soldier defused the situation by telling the South Sudanese security officer that I would happily erase all the images I shot, so there was no need to take the camera away. At least I think that’s what he said, because just then the security officer released his grip on the camera strap. DSLR cameras have electronic menus you call up on the LED screen in back of the camera. I brought up the menu for erasing images and showed the security officer that I had put the cursor right over the ‘erase all images’ function. Funny thing about DSLR cameras, it’s not enough to move the cursor, you also have to press enter. Thankfully, I was able to capture at least a couple of the rare Soviet aircraft to show to my son when I got home.

After I got past security on the ramp, my next stop was the Ebola testing table where I waited for 15 minutes to fill out a declaration that I didn’t come into contact with Ebola on my way from Toronto. It’s a funny thing, if you wait in the blazing hot sun for 15-20 minutes just about everyone will register a fever when they stick a thermometer in your ear.

I was met at the airport by Grant McDonald, the JHR rep on the ground in Juba. Grant is the right guy for the job. Cool as a cucumber and connected to everyone, he greeted me and arranged for a driver to meet us outside the terminal. I was so relieved that my bags actually made it from Toronto through Addis Ababa and to Juba that I didn’t mind the 30 minute wait for the driver. Grant understood what arriving in Juba must feel like to a white middle-aged guy from suburban Toronto. He put me at ease right away handing me a local cell phone so I could call home and let my family know that I hadn’t been eaten by a hyena. For many people, going to see The Lion King is the extent of their African experience. I was no different.

Everyone in Juba knows and respects Grant, from the Canadian ambassador to the local stringers and NGO representatives. Grant organized the two-day JHR event and I believe almost everyone showed up as a result of the great work he’s been doing there. I couldn’t have asked for a better host, organizer and fixer. He even arranged for some sightseeing, with very little photography, and made sure I brought home some real African souvenirs. BTW, you can transport tribal spears in your checked baggage.

Challenging roads in Juba, South Sudan. (Robin Pierro/JHR)

South Sudan – the world’s newest country – lags far behind most of Africa in economic development, human rights, the establishment of legitimate government institutions, a transparent judiciary and the emergence of a free press. Infrastructure is almost non-existent. The roads were among the most challenging dirt tracks I had ever seen. Very few are paved and the ones that are have to be evacuated when the President drives by.  Most roads in Juba are just reddish brown dust with embedded rocks, boulders or potholes holes that require drivers to move over to the other side of the street to get by or drive carefully over the obstacles. Vehicle suspensions need to be replaced often.

There is no power grid, you either have a diesel generator or you have no power. There are periods when the generators are shut down, like over the lunch hour. There is no system of delivering drinking water to the citizens. That’s why one of the first things you notice when you move around Juba, the capital city, is that the country is literally knee deep in light blue plastic water bottles. This is by no means an exaggeration, they are everywhere. Think of Tim Horton’s cups and other fast food litter multiplied a thousand times. Bottled water is the only water people have to drink unless they collect rainwater in rooftop tanks.

Diesel exhaust hangs heavy in the air, a situation exacerbated by the generators, large trucks and thousands of three seat mini-bikes that weave and dodge their way through traffic. On my final morning in Juba I was visiting a radio station for a couple of hours, when my driver didn’t show up to take me back to Logali House where I was staying. I was so afraid of missing my flight that I suspended all good sense and accepted a ride on one of these crazy motor bikes driven by a complete stranger. It was 5 minutes of sheer terror and easily one of the dumbest things I have ever done.

There is something in South Sudan that makes all the other conditions I’ve described tolerable, and that is the warmth and optimism of the South Sudanese people.

Ron Waksman in Juba. (Grant McDonald/JHR)

Ron Waksman at the Juba Telegraph. (Grant McDonald/JHR)

In South Sudan everyone shakes hands, a common and polite greeting everywhere in the world. But you notice almost immediately that handshakes in Juba linger just a couple of seconds longer than the North American or European comfort zones allow. In South Sudan, a handshake is not just a formality when people greet each other for the first time. Even people who know each other shake hands warmly when they meet again. The handshake is always accompanied by a welcoming smile and eye contact that engages you. After a couple of days in Juba, I also started to linger when I shook hands. People are genuinely interested in who you are and where you come from.

My JHR mission was different in a number of ways. Instead of the great work JHR staff do in training local journalists to do their jobs more effectively through various techniques and strategies, I was in South Sudan to work specifically with more senior media managers including publishers and managing editors. This was the first time senior media managers were assembled by JHR for this kind of training. Based on the discussions and ideas that came out of the two-day sessions, I hope JHR will continue along this path if for no other reason than to get all these senior people into one room on a regular basis to discuss solutions to common issues.

There are a multitude of seminars and training programs offered by media agencies from around the world in South Sudan. My focus on day-one was to reinforce important journalistic principles that are absolutely necessary for the development of democratic institutions and good governance. We spent some time discussing who in society journalists are supposed to represent. The concept of reporting news in the ‘public interest’ has not really taken hold yet in a country where most citizens don’t give much thought to a free press that is supposed to represent their views and hold those in power accountable. There is even a segment of society in South Sudan that takes the government’s position that any criticism at all of ministers and officials is tantamount to treason and not in the interest of peace. It’s almost as if the media exists to defend public interest, without the public really being aware of it.

Ron Waksman teaching media managers seminar, Juba - photo credit Grant McDonald

Ron Waksman teaching the media managers seminar in Juba. (Grant McDonald/JHR)

I’m very fond of saying that a journalistic principle is not really a principle unless it’s tested every so often. As a basis for discussion, I provided all the media managers with copies of the Global News Journalistic Principles and Practices. I wanted to be very careful about coming across as the ‘Great White Hunter’, there to teach ‘primitive’ South Sudanese journalists about how we do things in Canada.

I learned that while western nations occasionally invoke journalistic standards to address ethical problems, my South Sudanese colleagues live these challenges daily. For them, journalistic independence isn’t an intellectual exercise, it means successfully making it through another broadcast day or publishing another edition of the paper. Instead of lecturing, I felt it was my place to moderate a discussion whereby all the media managers felt assured they were in a safe place where they could honestly express their feelings and frustrations.

Those frustrations had to do with the dedication and commitment of their own journalists, suppression by the government and the sometimes overbearing ideologies of the aid agencies and NGOs that fund them. For much of the discussion the group talked to each other, sharing their experiences and offering solutions. Sometimes there just weren’t any solutions to be had and members of the group just appreciated the opportunity to vent. In listening to their back and forth discussions, it became apparent that for the most part each media outlet was fighting the same battles on their own. The discussion turned to the need for a ‘college’ of journalists that would represent the media industry as whole on common issues. This college would govern journalists in South Sudan by requiring educational/training standards to become a journalist, bestowing official press credentials and serve as a dispute resolution body to handle complaints from the public and government officials. An umbrella organization could also offer ‘safety in numbers’ so that individual media organizations would feel empowered and supported when the government threatened them with reprisals.

Media Managers Seminar, Juba. (Ron Waksman/JHR)

This college of journalists could also be helpful in setting out a new strategy to shift the funding model from individual journalism projects to the overall sustainability of the media industry in South Sudan. In two days of seminars we also looked at whether current media models that operate in South Sudan are sustainable over the long term. One of my observations early on was that the dozens of individual media projects underway in South Sudan may be hurting the industry there as a whole by fragmenting available funding. There are, in my opinion, too many individual journalism projects operating in South Sudan funded by the good intentions of aid and non-governmental organizations. There are too many newspapers, radio stations and TV stations operating in South Sudan as individual journalism projects. These outlets have little autonomy, unable to determine how funding dollars are spent, especially when the money originates with ideologically-driven aid agencies and NGOs. These ideals, and in some cases political agendas, do not necessarily support the goal of overall media sustainability for the future.

One of the important issues I addressed with media managers was whether they would like to have a greater say in determining where and how to invest funding dollars in their own organizations to build them as sustainable businesses. The obvious question was what happens when funding dollars for individual projects run out? Difficult decisions will have to be made in South Sudan about which projects and media outlets have a reasonable chance at succeeding as stand-alone businesses if and when funding dries up, which it inevitably does. That’s why more self-determination in where to invest available funding is so important. It was clear early on that advertising is not likely to be a sustainable model for media in South Sudan. The primary advertiser currently is the government, not commercial businesses. In a country where the government has shut down radio stations for even mild criticism, giving the same officials more economic leverage creates a clear conflict.

South Sudanese medi managers with Ron Waksman (center) after the training workshop. (Grant McDonald/JHR)

One of the strategies we discussed was a ‘media tax’ that would be levied on any and all communications companies licensed to operate in South Sudan. This would include wireless operators, who could also be required to provide push notification and text messaging services as another channel for reaching the audience with news and information. The ‘media tax’ remains an unlikely scenario because there is little motivation for the government to levy such a tax to assist media organizations critical of government services and ministers, more reason to reassess whether the funding given to individual media projects would be better spent on improving the overall sustainability of the media industry.

I thought that one of the most interesting ideas to come from our discussions was the importance of media training, not just for journalists but for government officials.

Ron Waksman and Ambassador Nick Coghlan in Juba. (Grant McDonald/JHR)

Ron Waksman and Nick Coghlan, Canadian Ambassador to South Sudan, in Juba. (Grant McDonald/JHR)

In South Sudan, Ministers often contradict each other and even the president because there is no consistent messaging. This creates confusion among the population as to who is in charge and leads to policy decisions that create chaos. Government officials would benefit from media training that would teach them why it’s in their best interest to speak with the media instead of avoiding them entirely or retaliating when they are criticized.

If the government had a more sophisticated communications apparatus the flow of information to the public would vastly improve and create more engagement in the political and democratic process. JHR could play a very useful role in educating and training the government on proper communications practice.

Thanks JHR for a life-changing experience. It was an honour and a privilege to work with Grant and the rest of the journalists and managers who attended our seminars.

Ron Waksman is the Director, Online News & Current Affairs, Editorial Standards & Practices at Global News. He travelled to JHR’s program in South Sudan as part of a partnership between JHR and  Global News, with support from Shaw Media.

JHR’s program in South Sudan is generously supported by the United Nations Democracy Fund

 

Mountaintops, Tukuls and Training in Torit

By: Grant McDonald

During a recent discussion with a colleague of mine in South Sudan we talked of the beauty of a mountain and the desire of certain individuals to summit such peaks. Those who choose to seek the top are often asked why. What is the purpose? What difference does it make? My colleague had heard one response which encapsulates the reason of the climber perfectly, “because it’s there.”

Tukuls and Mountains on the way to Torit, Eastern Equatoria.

When history decides to judge our generation – which it will – do we want to be remembered as the generation which saw mountains but chose valleys? Will we be the ones who saw problems and did nothing? Or will we be a people who fundamentally and categorically reject the myth of our generations’ apathy?

There are both physical and metaphorical mountains to be conquered all across South Sudan. Along the road toward Torit, which is a four hour drive south east of the capital city of Juba, I found myself staring up towards the wonderful mountaintops which govern the sky in Eastern Equatoria; the latest area of South Sudan which Journalists for Human Rights conducted media training.

Appropriate location for JHR training in Torit.

There is not a subtle change when leaving the city, it’s drastic. Apartment complexes and compounds are replaced by Tukuls, shade umbrellas replaced by mango trees and pollution replaced by fresh air.

What also becomes apparent is the isolation, not between individuals, but between communities. It was in this moment that I once again realized the importance of regional media training. The physical location of these communities also strengthened my belief that media is a common thread bringing communities together. Allowing those living in often forgotten corners of the world to know what is happening in and around their own country. Coupled with a country-wide literacy rate of approximately 20 per cent, there are entire areas heavily reliant on information coming from their battery-powered radios.

In other words, the silent faces of a society searching for answers need the media as a liaison between them and those making decisions which impact their lives.

Sprinkled throughout South Sudan, in each community and region however, I am amazed by the talented journalists I come across. Torit is no exception.

One of my favourite aspects of the media training JHR offers has nothing to do with our structural approach or our unique style of training. It is in fact the conversations with and between participants.

Leading an open discussion on the divide and mistrust between government and media.

The discussions not only focus on journalism, but of the issues within their country. Their hopes, their dreams for a better future. The workshops often serve as an area for open discussion, not just between journalists’, but also members of civil society and government.

In Torit, we had representatives from all media houses in the area, along with civil society groups such as the Union of Journalists and two government representatives in attendance for the workshop. This is not a rarity for JHR. Part of our intention through these workshops is to bring together different areas of society so each can better understand what the other does. It is (in some cases) a first conversation and discussion that journalists may have with government employees outside of story coverage.

The workshops can begin with a certain level of suspicion due to mistrust on all sides. However, as the conversation moves along, so too does the willingness to participate.

One area which we heavily discussed in Torit surrounded the very serious problem of censorship and self-censorship which consistently happens within South Sudanese media, especially when the coverage is about the conflict between government forces and opposition forces.

A more informal discussion on media freedom.

A more informal discussion on media freedom.

The local journalism community has been told in more ways than one that allowing any interviews or perspectives of opposition leaders to be heard on their airwaves or seen in their pages, will lead to consequences, such as a full shutdown. An action that runs contrary to objective and balanced journalism.

How does one fight back against this? One of the first steps is a conversation. Although the workshops offer information regarding writing structure, story pitching and human rights, they also offer a very important platform for this discussion. I’m proud of that.

Each of us should be proud of the work we are doing, especially if you believe it is making a positive impact. If not, find something that does and together, we can be judged by history as the generation that did something different.

Even if we feel our first step towards change is a small one, or lacking in immediate impact. No one ever climbed a mountain without taking that first, seemingly small and insignificant step.

New Station, New Inspiration in South Sudan

By: Grant McDonald from Juba, South Sudan

How often do you find yourself seeking out inspiration? We often scroll through our Facebook page for a link, Reddit for its memes and Buzzfeed for its lists. We rely on pillows and coffee mugs that tell us to laugh and live, we place pictures of cats “hanging in there” on our cubicle walls.

But what if we’re looking in all the wrong places? What if that co-worker we awkwardly pass by several times a day with the obligatory “how’s it going?” holds a story of personal redemption and triumph, what if that barista who spells your name wrong everyday on your to-go cup is someone’s personal hero. Chances are, inspiration is all around us waiting to be found.

A wonderful quality of inspiration is that it comes in many forms. This past week I have found inspiration in the form of equality.

Journalists form smaller working groups as part of JHR workshop.

Journalists form smaller working groups as part of JHR workshop.

Since being in South Sudan with Journalists for Human Rights, I consistently attempt to increase the number of female journalists attending my Rights Media workshops…but it’s challenging. The number of male journalists in the profession far outweigh the number of women. Some media houses prefer to send male journalists to the workshops because they are more senior and other media houses simply do not employ a single female journalist.

However, there is something stirring in South Sudan. Something which could signal a palpable movement in media equality and diversity. A newly formed media house called Equator Broadcast Corporation (EBC).

Management team of EBC touring new studios.

The station has yet to launch, but it has hired a team of driven, intelligent and brave journalists, editors, camera operators, producers, graphic designers of whom I found myself standing in front of this week soaking in the inspiration they seemed to exude. I also – for the first time – found myself hosting a workshop for 41 participants, 50 per cent of them being female.

What was wonderful about this team, was that regardless of tribe, creed or gender, they worked in symbiotic motion. Speaking with management of EBC I expressed my excitement with their decision to hire with such equality. Their response was simple and eloquent, “it makes us a stronger unit.”

Speaking to a room full of inspiring journalists. For the first time, the workshop had a 50% turnout of female journalists.

I was left speechless at the end of the workshop when I was presented with a gift from the station, a sculpture of a circle of friends representing an unbreakable bond and a continuous source of inspiration.

The station – as well as media as a whole here — has a long road ahead of it. Reporters Without Borders latest report on media freedom around the world places South Sudan 125th on a list of 180 countries.

However, against great odds, these young women and men will continue to push their nation forward all the while creating a by-product of inspiration for me.

So close the laptop, lose the lists and mum the memes. Find inspiration in your co-workers, ask the barista to tell you her story. I guarantee, it will supersede an image of a cat “hanging in there.”

“They’ll tell you it’s too early, until it’s too late.”

By: Grant McDonald

I’ve never read an obituary or heard a eulogy reminiscing of one’s monetary power, the size of the building they used to call home or the thread count of the sheets they once owned. I have however, read and heard of their passions, their character and most importantly, their impact on others.

As individuals, we are constantly seeking ways to find fulfilment and leave behind meaningful change. I have been lucky by finding outlets for this throughout my life. Journalists for Human Rights is one of the most inspiring ways that I have come across. Does this fall under reciprocal altruism? To a certain degree, yes.

Reciprocally altruistic is one of the various (almost comical) accusations I’ve welcomed from perfect strangers regarding my outlook on my work with JHR, as well as being: too positive, too optimistic, too hopeful, or just plain naïve.

As each of us push toward our own unique goals however, we cannot be fazed by this. At the same time, we must also ensure we have the evidence to back up our seemingly theoretical optimism. We owe that much to whatever we’re fighting for.

Anyang John Kur holds his published story regarding childhood marriage

Anyang John Kur holds his published story regarding childhood marriage

Since my time in South Sudan I have worked with every media house in Juba and Yei in some capacity, I have trained 85 journalists – many of whom have published powerful human rights stories – I’ve helped launch an SMS-based website to create a network for journalists and written journalism curriculum for the university while also teaching there. These are the hard facts, by the numbers.

I will never forget the powerful impact Emmanuel Monychol Akop had on me. Emmanuel is the Editor of The Juba Telegraph. We were discussing the work of JHR and I felt myself losing grip of my own confidence and optimism as I described to him what we were hoping to achieve. I felt myself shying away from my convictions as I let the outside doubt seep into my psyche.

I mumbled something along the lines that while I understood he might consider it to be too early or too risky to start publishing articles focused on human rights violations…and that’s when he cut me off with a short sentence which re-energized me.

“They’ll tell you it’s too early, until it’s too late.”

In any project within the NGO world, there are – with good reason — hard numbers which need to be accounted for, the hard facts you need to back up your argument.

Head of Communications at Juba University Dr. Williams and I solidifying JHR's partnership.

Head of Communications at Juba University Dr. Williams and I solidifying JHR’s partnership.

However, I have yet to find a way to chart courage, I can’t fit progress into a pie chart and I certainly can’t represent the hope of a nation through a non-linear graph.

So, dear reader, if you truly believe in a cause, be it media development — or something completely different – and it appears to sit impossibly out of reach or naïve to others, think of the words of the late Nelson Mandela:

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

We can choose to be pulled down by cynicism and accept indifference as our creed, or we can pull others up through our example and enthusiasm. In the end, that’s what they’ll talk about at your eulogy.

 

Yei, South Sudan: Our journey along the Dusty Road

By: Grant McDonald

A small village along the road to Yei

A small village along the road to Yei

As we passed small villages seemingly frozen in time, the vehicle weaves from one side of the road to the other in an attempt to find the “smoothest” path forward. I couldn’t help allowing my mind to wander to the land of metaphors (one of my favourite places). We can all relate to this within our own lives, we all understand that the road ahead is quite bumpy, it’s difficult to see what’s coming and we fully realize we will eventually need to refuel, but we all hold onto hope that we will find a way to continue moving forward, navigating new territory in search of our goals.

Repairing some “loose parts”.

I was quickly brought back to reality as the Land Cruiser hit what can only be described as a crater in the road leading to some uneasy sounds coming from under the vehicle. Pulling over to assess the damage we found a few “loose parts.” Nothing a wrench couldn’t handle in the interim, until we found a roadside garage to offer a more permanent fix. (We would later fall victim to the road once again on the drive home with a flat tire).

My goal, in the literal sense was getting to Yei (pronounced yay!) to hold Journalists for Human Rights’ first workshop outside of the capital city of Juba, South Sudan. We had hit the road much later than we had planned and now the driver (great guy) was trying to make up lost time.

Yei is located approximately 160 kilometres southwest of Juba. In terms of distance, it doesn’t sound too far if you’re thinking in terms of highway driving at 120km/h. This is different. The drive took us about six hours, six hours of dust, heat and did I mention bumps?

Even with the windows up, dust still finds its way into the vehicle, your eyes, your lungs, I suppose it’s all consuming. We had the windows down, as one does when AC is not available. Mix that with sweat (it’s about 40°C here) and by the time we arrived to our lodging area in Yei, a good shower was in order!

Workshop Begins

The next morning, the first journalist arrives around 8:45 a.m. followed soon after by others from various media houses in the area and some civil society groups. The room is soon full of life, 26 participants, some chatting amongst themselves while others flip through the provided handouts on Human Rights reporting.

Discussing elements within a Rights-Based story.

Over the next couple days, I will have the privilege of sharing new ideas with this group of young, hopeful journalists who are fighting a battle I can’t even pretend to fully understand. A fight to ensure freedom of speech, a fight against injustice and a fight to ensure those without a voice can find one through the media.

We speak of balanced reporting, their ideas of needed elements within a story and mitigating risk. The Union of Journalists, one of JHR partners on the ground in South Sudan deliver a guest lecture on the importance of unity. As the workshop comes to a close, a moment of silence is held for our fallen colleagues. Five journalists had been gunned down in a vicious ambush earlier that week in Western Bahr al Ghazal state, a stern reminder of the risk journalists take here.

Humbled 

I use the word “humbled” too often when describing the feeling which permeates my being after most encounters with my journalism colleagues here in South Sudan. This time was different, I was hit with anger, frustration and a feeling of helplessness as the moment of silence ended. Until one journalist spoke, “We will carry on their work, for a better South Sudan.”

Moment of silence for the five journalists killed in Western Bahr al Ghazal state.

I realized, each of these journalists were on their own individual journey, weaving along a bumpy road, full of craters and obstacles. They are strong, stronger than me, as they unite in a singular voice against human rights violations. Their forward gaze remains unbroken, refusing to settle for the status quo as they push toward their future goals at the end of their own dusty road.

When randomness approaches, just say yes

By: Grant McDonald from Juba, South Sudan

Regret is a word I rarely use, I rarely use it, because I am lucky. From a young age I have been shown that new challenges offer new experiences. Deciding to move to South Sudan last year was one of those moments. A moment in which I had to decide if I would leap at the opportunity, thrust into the unknown, or to simply say no and more than likely regret that decision. I rejected the latter and have not looked back.

The work with Journalists for Human Rights is making a difference here, I know this to be true because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in the young Journalist Parach Mach who chose to fight for his contentious story on child prostitution to be published. I’ve seen it in the work ethic of JHR local trainer Onen Walter Solomon and I’ve seen it in each journalist I have had the pleasure of working with as I am humbled by the raw determination in their eyes.

The entrance to room HS16, which has seen better days.

Within my current work, randomness finds its way to seep through. To say I was “approached” would be the wrong term, I was rather “informed” last year that I was the newest professor at The University of Juba and I would be teaching a fifth year course in the Mass Communications program.

For some context, JHR is in partnership with the university with a goal of creating and implementing a Human Rights Journalism course.

I had the choice to explain that teaching a course in “International Communications” was not really what I was here to do, or, simply accept the beautiful randomness of life and take it as my next challenge. I chose the latter.

The students are inspiring. They are determined and constantly seeking out new information. They participate in a way that shows the knowledge being passed on is worthwhile to them. Today, I finished marking their first assignment: writing a press release. I must say, I was pleasantly surprised with the ability in each student.

This was my first day at the university. I have a class of six students who are always seeking new knowledge.

Looking back on my decision, a variety of excuses masquerading as reasons came to mind as to why I couldn’t do this. I was busy, I wasn’t supposed to be doing this kind of work with the university and lastly, questioning how effective it would be for the students and the overall program.

I suppose however, I needed to take the advice I often offer to others which is to never underestimate the power of your own example. For the students, I believe it is beneficial. For myself, I already feel as though I have gained wisdom from this opportunity, an opportunity I would have regretted letting pass.

So if you are reading this and considering doing something outside of your comfort zone, or debating whether or not it’s worth the risk. Choose adventure, say yes. The worst outcome is failure, which is a spectacular character builder.

I fail more than I succeed, yet I rarely use the word regret.

 

Rhyming for Rights in Ottawa

JHR’s university chapters are an important part of our mission to make everyone aware of their rights. At Carleton University in Ottawa, a dedicated group of students keep human rights in headlines by hosting great events for students and community members alike.

Emily Fearon takes the stage at JHR Carleton's Rhyme for Rights event. (Photo credit Charissa Feres)

Emily Fearon takes the stage at JHR Carleton’s Rhyme for Rights event. (Photo credit Charissa Feres)

Until last recently, I was a spoken word poetry virgin. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. Spoken word and I had hung-out a bit before, and it was fun, but nothing serious. However, on October 15th, the beginning of a beautiful and hopefully long term relationship blossomed between us.

Journalists for Human Rights Carleton Student Chapter put on their second annual Rhymes for Rights spoken word event. The spoken word night was a fundraiser for JHR’s journalism training in South Sudan. The goal is to help strengthen media in South Sudan so they can report on local and national news. This is just one of many projects JHR runs, and student chapters, like the one at Carleton, support.

The talent on display came from Carleton students and local poets, each exhibiting an awe-inspiring presentation. Many of the poems were centred on love. There were frank conversations about sex, marriage, broken relationships, unrequited love, and even a love poem written about winter. These balanced nicely with the equally passionate poems about human rights issues. Some of the presenters decried racism, poverty, and apathy, and others called for social justice, a renewed interest in women’s rights, and self-confidence. You were hard pressed to find someone in attendance that night who wasn’t moved by at least one poet’s words.

Poet Brandon Wint performs at Rhymes for Rights. (Photo credit Charissa Feres)

Poet Brandon Wint performs at Rhymes for Rights. (Photo credit Charissa Feres)

The overarching message of the night came from both Kathryn Sheppard and Brandon Wint, the featured speakers. Kathryn had worked at the JHR Head Office in Toronto and on JHR projects overseas. Though she no longer works for JHR, she still spoke proudly of the journalists she met and worked with during her time with the organization. Kathryn believes vehemently in responsible journalism, which entails journalists reporting responsibly, but also extends to journalists holding those in power accountable. The story Kathryn shared was of a foreign government who declared that the stories written by JHR-trained journalists made them work harder. The journalists put pressure on the government and saw their work make a difference in their country. Seeing results like this encourage us and remind us why we do what we do.

Brandon Wint is an acclaimed Ottawa poet who has travelled across the country with his spoken word, teaches poetry writing, and loves cookies. He shared some of his work at Rhymes for Rights, and the audience loved it. Though not a journalist, Brandon declared that the best journalism is motivated by love. Indeed, he shared his life perspective that everything is for and about love. And there’s something to that.

We need to keep storytelling alive, be it through poetry or through journalism or through our love stories.

-By Emily Fearon for JHR Carleton

A Snapshot of JHR Media Training in South Sudan

By: Grant McDonald

My alarm clock goes into panic mode most mornings, reminding me that the work Journalists for Human Rights has set out to accomplish in South Sudan awaits.

Let me be clear off the top, there are constant challenges here; logistically speaking, the roads in Juba (the Capital of South Sudan) can triple the time of a commute with the massive divots forcing vehicles to a snail’s pace. There remains a different understanding of punctuality as well, meaning being four hours late to a meeting is nothing to get worked up over. Those challenges however, are nothing more than inconveniences. The true issues here are much deeper, including the very serious undertone of concern regarding what is safe for a journalist to publish.

Grant McDonald hosts JHR workshop in Juba, South Sudan.

I have spoken with several editors who say they have been told by national security matter-of-factly not to publish the next day’s paper because an article they were planning to release was too controversial. A station called Bakita in the capital had its doors closed and editor arrested after being accused of being anti-government for using the word “rebel” on air. It can be overwhelming to step back from my day to day schedule and look at the big picture.

There are moments of weakness where I feel like screaming into a pillow or ordering a stiff drink before the sun hits an acceptable point in the sky. But immediately following those moments I am hit with a humbling understanding that my challenges, pale in comparison faced each day by courageous journalists here fighting for something larger than themselves.

This is what pushes me to greet the screaming alarm clock with determination, because as I contemplate what the day — in which I’m not holding a workshop — will hold, I know those same brave journalists are waiting for me to meet with them one on one and discuss the stories they have been chasing, shaping and hoping to publish.

I meet with Mary George, a talented journalist reporting for South Sudan Radio, who is working on a sensitive piece which will (once published) force open discussion between cultural beliefs and scientific understanding when it comes to expectant mothers. Mary has just returned from speaking with village chiefs and elders and is hoping for guidance on who to speak with next.

Her idea came from the broader issue of South Sudan’s troubling Maternal Mortality rate, the highest per capita in the world. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reports there are 2,054 deaths per 100,000 live births – meaning 1 in 7 women will die during their lifetime due to pregnancy related issues.

Mary wanted to focus on a cultural belief which involved restricting the diet of pregnant women out of fear certain foods could curse the child and family. Mary wants to know if there are health risks involved in this practice which may run in direct contrast to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which guarantees everyone’s right to adequate health – especially for mothers and children; although not legally binding, it’s a starting point.

Kaunda David interview a representative from UNAID.

Kaunda David interview a representative from UNAID.

Kaunda David is a very enthusiastic young man – who I found out, has no formal journalism training. This is not a rarity and can be a dangerous reality. Without the knowledge of creating an objective, fully sourced and well compiled news story, journalists are putting themselves in potential danger of becoming targets.

Kaunda is hoping to cover a story on HIV/AIDS rates in South Sudan. That is a very broad topic and we sit to whittle it down into something tangible. We start with a statistical analysis and find an area known as Western Equatoria holds a rate of infection double that of the rest of the country. Why is that? What is being done to assist those in the area? Do those suffering from the virus still hold equal rights?

I have met with Kaundra several times over the past week to go over the structure of his story, the angle and questions he needs to ask. Today however, he is sitting down with a representative from UNAIDS in South Sudan to get a better understanding of the challenges being faced and how it’s being handled.

The feeling that the work is making a difference is often strong, but fleeting. While I see positive movement in some journalists, their reality is often thrust in my face the moment I start to forget the media climate here.

An email from Parach Mach pops up in my inbox. Parach is a young photojournalist working for a local newspaper and he has completed a piece – one he had pitched in one of JHR’s workshops — regarding child prostitution and its relation to the ongoing conflict in South Sudan. I write back asking for the publication date and receive a revealing and disappointing response:

“I cannot assure you when exactly because the newspaper I work for do not publish thing[s] that expose bad side of the society.”

Editor works to piece together a story at Citizen Television (CTV).

Editor works to piece together a story at Citizen Television (CTV).

This is a challenge which continues to persist; self-censorship. Parach’s article is sound, well-balanced and bursting with hard facts. I wrote back immediately suggesting we meet with his editor and discuss the importance of the article and how his balanced approach will help ensure the paper cannot be accused of being one-sided.

The evolution of media freedom does not happen overnight, it is a slow-moving, sometimes painful transition. This notion is something I’m forced to constantly remember.

The hope of this nation and its push for freedom of expression rests heavily on the shoulders of young journalists like Parach, those who refuse to settle for the status quo and demand accountability.

This is why I am here, this is why the horrid sound of my alarm clock in the morning is a greeting I am privileged to have. I am privileged because I will one day be able to look back with the understanding that I bore witness to something magnificent and inspiring: media freedom and freedom of expression in a new nation being pushed forward by a group of journalists who refused to stay silent.

From refugee camp to radio studio: Onen Walter’s path to human rights media

Onen Walter was not interested in journalism when he was younger. Living in a refugee camp for a decade can make it difficult to plan for the future – let alone a successful one.

Onen Walter and Grant Macdonald, JHR’s team in South Sudan.

Onen was born in 1980 in Pajok, a community in the east corner of South Sudan near the border of Uganda. When he was just three-years-old, the country spiraled into a brutal civil war with the Sudanese government fighting the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, and Onen’s happy life changed forever.

As the fighting spread across the country, Onen and his family left their town to find safety. Sometimes they crossed the border to Uganda – four days walk from their home. Life was difficult and dangerous.

Onen had learned to be very independent, but when he was fourteen had to grow up even faster. Trapped in a rebel stronghold and unable to escape, Onen was separated from his family.  Isolated and alone, he had to fend for himself as he tried to find his younger brother. After two years on his own, doing his best to avoid the fighting, Onen found safety at a refugee camp in Uganda. To his great joy, he found his younger brother living safely in the camp. The small family was reunited.

Over the next ten years, Onen did whatever kind of work he could to survive, “life wasn’t easy,” he explained. Many days he would spend hours making charcoal and selling it to support himself and his brother.

A change

In 2005, after more than twenty years of fighting, a peace deal was signed in Sudan. In 2011, South Sudan became an independent country.  The next year, Onen returned home, determined to make a new life in his country.

Onen Walter prepares for a JHR training workshop.

Onen Walter prepares for a JHR training workshop.

Onen’s first goal was to get educated. He joined the Free International University of Moldova in 2008, majoring in Ecological Studies. But his studies were cut short when the State Government expelled the university from the country.

Angry at the closure, and with no answers from the government, Onen, and some of his friends decided they needed to do something about it – to become a voice for the voiceless.

Onen’s first introduction to journalism was a course at the Multi-Media Training Center in South Sudan’s captial city  Juba. He learned the basics of radio production from veteran journalists at Juba Radio and he was a natural. Onen had found his calling.

After his training, Onen started working at South Sudan Radio as an Announcer. He also reported for South Sudan TV.  Four years later, Onen became Acting News Editor for 88.4 City FM and eventually became an International Correspondent with Radio France International (RFI) in South Sudan. Onen considers his move to journalism “a blessing.”

Onen is now 34 years-old and a seasoned journalism professional. He is the newest member of JHR’s team and he is using his expertise give back to the media community by to training his South Sudanese journalism colleagues in strong human rights reporting. Onen’s work represents the beginning of the larger ripple effect of JHR training. His training today will reverberate throughout his country for years to come in the form of strong, balanced journalism and upholding human rights.

A ripple which thought it was a tsunami

Small impacts have always been my favourite kind. Those moments which seem insignificant, unimportant or even hopeless.

What I like best about that first initial impact, is what follows. Once that small positive action – a ripple, if you will — is initiated by an individual – the residual effects are no longer governed by its creator. The impact is in fact, indifferent to outside expectations, or, lack thereof.

Grant McDonald leads a JHR training workshop for journalists in Juba.

This is how I view the work I do in South Sudan with Journalists for Human Rights (JHR). I am consistently humbled by the idea that big change, comes from small actions.

The launch of JHR in South Sudan comes at a time of civil unrest, uncertainty and suspicion between citizens and government. I truly believe that a strong, fair, balanced and objective media can begin to shine a light on important issues holding this beautiful country from fully realizing its own potential.

What must be made clear, is that while I see my work as a very needed and important piece to the puzzle, it’s not about me. It’s something much larger than myself, something larger than JHR. Change will come to this country because of the intelligent, dedicated and passionate South Sudanese journalists who carry on the work we have started; who decide to make a stand against injustice and become a voice for the voiceless and a ray of hope for the hopeless. How? By spreading information through their community, knowledge of something I hold close to my heart: Universal Human Rights.

I am constantly searching for words to describe how inspiring I have found the journalists I have had the honour of working with here. One example I can give is that of Julius Gale, a young journalist working for both the Citizen Newspaper and Citizen Television (CTV). While much of my work here is based on leading workshops, it is the follow-up one on one I enjoy most.

Grant McDonald and South Sudanese journalists Julius Gale work together on a Human Rights story regarding accessibility.

Julius told me on the first day we sat down together of his drive to ensure education is a top priority in his country, for everyone. He began visiting schools around the capital city of Juba, interested in how accessible schools are for those physically challenged. His research and interviews thus far have discovered that while some new structures have been designed to incorporate accessibility for those in wheelchairs, older buildings (which make up the majority of schools) simply do not. His curiosity has been noticed and after speaking with government officials, he was told new legislation and standards for schools had been set aside, but more public knowledge of the issue — created through his coverage — would ensure the public began seriously demanding these changes. This small moment, his small impact – in my mind – stands as a catalyst for something much larger down the road.

To you, dear reader: the above actions may leave you asking, so what? Where are the drastic changes? It may seem insignificant. I assure you, it is not. What Julius represents is an individual who has seen an injustice and decided to do something about it by casting a seemingly small and insignificant pebble into an oversized pond. But with time, what you will see is that initial impact may inspire someone else to stand next to him. From there maybe a few more, a small village and then maybe a city, a state and if that first pebble is cast just right, it can inspire a nation. Millions of individuals standing shoulder to shoulder casting their own small pebbles into the same pond over the same issue does not just create ripples, those ripples transform into a unified wave which cannot be ignored, and change does happen. That’s what Journalists for Human Rights is doing in South Sudan.