Author Archives: Grant Mcdonald

About Grant Mcdonald

Media has always been my area of expertise working as a news anchor/reporter in Toronto for most of my career but in 2014 I will take my media experience and head back to Africa. This time to South Sudan to implement journalism training. From 2012--2014 I anchored the mid-day slot for Talk Radio AM640. During my time with AM640, I took time off to live in West Africa for a part of 2013 to work with Journalists for Human Rights in Liberia as a media trainer. From 2010-2012 I worked in Communications for Metrolinx. From 2007-2010 I worked as a News Anchor at Talk Radio AM640 in various time slots. Away from my regular work I always enjoy being involved in the community so I ensure I have time to work with United Way Toronto, The Peer Project and University in the Community.

The Ups and Downs in the Life of a JHR Trainer

By: Grant McDonald

I have a secret. I am an imposter. I am an evening person masquerading as a spunky morning person.

Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy the productive early mornings I often have in Juba, South Sudan; but the summoning sound of my morning alarm or the very early phone calls I often receive from journalists I’ve worked with here just to say “hello,” leads to a premature requiem for my dreams.

I don’t check the forecast in the morning, it’s either going to be hot, very hot or raining. I do however scroll through numerous tweets, press releases and articles about South Sudan to get an idea of what the day might hold.

A small community just outside of the main city centre. (Photo: Robin Pierro JHR)

A small community just outside of the main city centre. (Photo Credit: Robin Pierro JHR)

The ongoing civil war has led to near economic collapse, severe malnutrition and severe hunger across the country. The latest Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) analysis reveals about 4.6 million people, or 40 per cent of South Sudan’s estimated population, face acute hunger in the next three months. This knowledge doesn’t just ground me, it smacks me in the face and calls me a coward. Alarm clock complaints? Please.

I head to the office of one of my local partners (Agency for Independent Media) which is a 10 minute walk from where I live, passing small tea huts and makeshift homes on the way. Although dry and dusty, there are splendid trees hurling shade towards me, as if questioning my decision to walk under the sun.

My days are never identical. My time here is typically split three-fold. Designing and hosting workshops for professional local journalists in the country, following up with trained journalists to help with their stories and designing journalism curriculum for The University of Juba.

We have a large task ahead of us in the coming days. We’re planning a multi-day workshop followed by a certificate ceremony for journalists who previously took part in Journalists for Human Rights training.

Putting Fires Out

There is one guarantee in South Sudan, the guarantee that at least one aspect of your well thought out plan will go awry.

The upcoming workshop was being held for journalism students who are part of The Student Press Club instead of working journalists.

Two days prior to the aforementioned workshop, I was told – over a spotty phone connection by Dr. Michael Joz — the Secretary General of the Press Club – that his members wouldn’t be participating due to travel budget restrictions. The entire club! Meaning as it currently stood, not a single soul was planning on coming to my workshop.

As the phone line goes silent at the end of the conversation, I stare at my outdated, scuffed-up navy blue cell phone screen which sarcastically flashes 0930hrs…I have less than 48 hours to remedy this situation.

I sort through the beige file folders precariously stacked on top of the office filing cabinets and buzz through the budget. We have money to cover travel for participants! A quick phone call to Dr. Joz and we’re back in business.

Next up, ensuring journalists show up to the certificate ceremony. Timing is everything, something I call the Goldilocks-syndrome. Give people too much notice, they’ll forget. Too little, they can’t make it. I’m looking for the perfect bowl of porridge.

I’m not a religious person, but the Regional Media Trainer I hired can only be described as a God-Send. Onen Walter Solomon took control of this task a few days prior, meticulously calling every journalist in our database (over 100) to let them know of the event. Now, he was calling to confirm.

from left... onen walter solomon, grant mcdonald and david de dau

From Left: Onen Walter Solomon, Grant McDonald and David De Dau. Outside of Agency for Independent Media Office in Juba.

Power Struggle

There are different types of power struggles happening in South Sudan. Some political, others personal…mine is more literal.

We’re in the middle of a fuel shortage (common in Juba). There’s no fuel. What does that mean? It means the generator which gives life to the venue I have booked is bone dry and unable to perform its all important job: generating power!

One suggestion is that we “simply” change the location of both the workshop and ceremony.

I now have less than 24 hours before participants arrive and I don’t plan on teaching in the dark. Walter has also just spent the last several days calling over 100 people to tell them where and when to come for the ceremony as well as inviting local Ministers to be in attendance.

However, just as the sun rises each morning over Africa, things like this have a funny way of always working out here. A jerry-can of fuel has been located which will get us through at least the first day (don’t ask me how one was “suddenly” found, because I just don’t know). We’ll deal with day two when we get there.

Workshop

I arrive half an hour before the start of the workshop in order to get everything ready. Some participants are already awaiting my arrival. Together, we wait to hear the sound of the generator roaring to life.

That glorious sound eventually reverberates through the room at 0904hrs followed by the flickering of lights!

Day one goes well, 15 participants with about 1/3 being female take part. My favourite moments within the workshops tend to occur near the beginning when I get to hear a little bit about each person there. I get to understand why they want to enter this chaotic world of journalism. Their drive inspires me daily.

During a mid-day break, I get word from the venue managers that there will be fuel for tomorrow. A wave of relief comes over me, this also means I can still host the certificate ceremony.

The second day goes smooth as well with a great amount of participation and sharing of ideas. Near the end we discuss the world the way it is, and the way it should be. How as journalists, there is an obligation to help shape this world by delivering the voices of countless individuals to the ears of those in power; and demand accountability.

Discussion of human rights during a JHR workshop

Discussion of human rights during a JHR workshop

The workshop closes at 1500hrs and I have one hour to create a more “ceremonial” feel in the room next door for the handing over of certificates which gets going at 1600hrs.

The generator usually switches off at 1700hrs sharp, so we have to squeeze introductions, speeches and hand over a lot of certificates within the hour. Not a small feat when you’re running on “South Sudan Time,” which can be a bit relaxed.

Through some heavy lifting and sweat we get the room set and the journalists begin arriving along with the ministers and other government representatives.

I’m a bit overwhelmed to see so many familiar faces. After being greeted wonderfully by each of them I have a moment to reflect and in that moment an indescribable feeling of privilege (I suppose it can be called) pushed up from my body and settled in the form of a lump in my throat.

I am so privileged to have had the opportunity to work with so many inspiring journalists. Young, old, rich and poor – we are all equals in the field of journalism; fighting for something so much larger than ourselves.

Congratulating a JHR-trained journalist receiving his certificate

Congratulating a JHR-trained journalist receiving his certificate

I say a few words to the journalists seated in front me. The focus being that the certificate is simply a piece of paper. A piece of paper which will hopefully act as a reminder to continue to fight – through journalism – against human rights violations and a reminder that they can help shape their nation by being a voice for those who have silently faced injustice.

The ceremony comes to an end and just like that, the journalists I have shared ideas, hopes and dreams with are gone. Back out into the world; a world which often views them as the enemy.

I pack my bag and my trusty projector which has – for the last couple days – hummed away as it lit up a small portion of an off-white wall full of chipped paint. The intention of what is being projected is to give a stronger understanding of journalism, human rights and the role the media can play in this ever changing environment.

jhr trainees

Group shot of journalists with JHR certificates

The generator goes silent, and the lights sleep; for another day has come to a close.

As the sun retreats to the safety of the horizon, I will replay the previous days in my mind as I wander home. The tea shops are now closed, the trees no longer cast any shade and the dust has settled.

If rising early means I am able to continue to have the privilege of knowing that the day will bring new challenges, new opportunities and more ways to be inspired…I’ll keep telling people I’m a morning person.

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.

 

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.

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.

The missing link in Liberia

One of many open sewage canals running through Monrovia.

One of many open sewage canals running through Monrovia.

Sophisticated boat engines were developed thousands of years after the creation of the first canoe. The automobile and other modes of transportation can all be traced back to the creation of the wheel.

What does it take for advanced technologies such as the above to come to fruition? It takes trial and error and the passage of time.

 

Every innovation however minute or significant is like the links on a chain. Each link signifies a generation of development that is connected to the link that came before it and the one that comes after it.

The present day social and economic status in developed countries is dependent on this very structure. However, the recent phenomenon of consumerism has pushed the demand for goods to an all-time high, leaving even the most developed countries in the world in a constant struggle to properly evolve.

What happens when sophisticated technologies, fueled by consumerism, infiltrate less developed countries? Links are bypassed in the chain of evolution. As such, the important building blocks required within new societies are overlooked.

It is this extreme evolution that has in part led to Liberia’s current social and economic states. For example, millions of Liberian citizens can pick up a cellphone to call a friend, but they are unable to turn on a tap to access running water. Why? Because the infrastructure has simply not been built.

A massive open sewage system splits through the capital city of Monrovia and makes its way to the Atlantic Ocean. The result? A trail of bluish-grey chemicals and foul odour is left behind as the public faces serious health and safety issues.

While power may be available to a majority of households – there are conditions. Electricity runs from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. For those who manage to have access to power 24/7, it comes at a cost of $1000 (U.S.) per month – a number that hardly resonates with the majority of Liberians.

It’s evident that Liberia is still licking its wounds after a vicious two decades-long civil war. And its environment, which is missing vital infrastructure, is still developing.

The current situation in Liberia seems to reveal a generation with a strong link to its past; yet the introduction of superficial technologies that supersede solid infrastructure leaves present day Liberia in a state of shock as it attempts to quickly evolve without the luxury of time.

Plug n' play: mobile phones are widely available at low cost in Liberia--but at a high cost of the lack of basic infrastructures such as running water.

Plug n’ play: mobile phones are widely available at low cost in Liberia–but at a high cost of the lack of basic infrastructures such as running water.

The extreme speed of selective development is cause for concern. If the cement, which makes up the foundation of a home isn’t given enough time to properly dry, the weight of that structure could cause the cement to slightly shift. Over time, the shifting could lead to cracks in the structure, creating uncertainty in its sustainability. Regardless if the home appears to stand strong for one, five, 10 or 20 years, a home built on a faulty foundation will inevitably be condemned, or crumble without warning.

So what is the solution? The current government in Liberia has promised electricity across the country within the next 20 years. While the major roads in Monrovia are paved, much of the country outside the city boundaries remains unpaved. The government has promised to change this, starting by paving every road in the town of Voinjama, located in the northern part of Liberia in Lofa county. However, a recent trip to the area revealed that paving has not begun. While government cannot and should not hold the sole-sourced solution, there needs to be proper investment by Liberia for infrastructure projects.

Liberia has great potential, but in order for it to reach a higher level, this generation must first find its missing link, to responsibly attach both the past and the future to its present day.