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.
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 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.”
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.