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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.