Category Archives: Blog

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.

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.

Home Again

I follow Edwina Thomas through the tight alleys of Kroo Bay in Freetown. This is one of the city’s most deprived areas. Thousands of metal shacks, built beside open latrines. Mothers washing and cooking. Teenagers sitting around. Kids running, everywhere.

We’re here to do a story on sanitation. Cholera and malaria are major problems in Kroo Bay, especially come the rainy season in May. This is Edwina’s first morning working as a news journalist. She consults me on questions to ask. I consult her on everything else.

Kroo Bay Community Secretary General Samuel Cox-Koroma explains the area's sanitation problems

Kroo Bay Community Secretary General Samuel Cox-Koroma explains the area’s sanitation problems

Edwina recently returned to Freetown from the U.K., after living there for eight years. She now sports a distinct twang when speaking English – a young, urban London accent. But when speaking Krio – Sierra Leone’s Creole, spoken by almost everyone – she’s still all-Freetown.

Edwina’s older sister moved to England 30 years ago. She brought Edwina over after the end of the civil war. A fresh start after witnessing the worst of humanity.

“Mr. Lansana owned the garage in my neighbourhood. They shot him and all the people that were hiding with him in a basement,” she says. It’s hard to imagine the effect that would have on a teenage girl. But Edwina just sighs when talking about it now. “My friend was raped, but she looks good now. She’s married.”

Her excitement at leaving was soon tempered by the challenges of life in a metropolis like London. “It was not what I had thought. It was hard. It was expensive.” Her fees were equivalent to a lifetime’s earnings for an average person in Sierra Leone. Edwina paid her way, with a part-time job in Marks & Spencer.

Red tape forced a two-year gap in her studies, and she even spent time working in Scotland. Edwina eventually got her Advanced Diploma in Business Management, only to be faced with a brick wall. New visa rules for international students meant she couldn’t stay to study for a degree, and the diploma wouldn’t cut it in the U.K.’s competitive job market. It was time to go home.

Edwina started with an internship at the Social Security offices in Freetown, but when it ended she had to keep an open mind on her next move.

Her passion is singing and song-writing  One of her songs was recently used in a movie here. A newspaper ad for a job at Skyy Radio caught her eye. The station will soon relaunch as the country’s first women’s radio station.

A pig looks for food in a Kroo Bay latrine

A pig looks for food in a Kroo Bay latrine

She now helps produce a music and entertainment show, and voices characters in one of Skyy Radio’s drama series. The shows use drama to highlight issues affecting women in Sierra Leone.

Edwina actually asked me for help with her voicing for the dramas. She doesn’t need any help. She’s acts for radio as if there are TV cameras in front of her. Waving her hands, booming her voice, and jerking her head – a West African woman not to be messed with.

The journalism comes a little less naturally to Edwina. “It’s tough for me coming into the business.” But in Kroo Bay she has already stopped looking down at her notepad. She just asks questions that occur to her.

“I know I can do it if I try,” she admits. Trying to help a Sierra Leone, that’s still full of problems. But a Sierra Leone with a promising future, just like hers.

Football, no matter what

Where there’s a will there’s a way. And when it comes to millions of boys the world over, from Rio slums to African villages, when it comes to soccer there is a way they will play no matter how poor or

The players gather on Sundays after church to practise football.Fast on crutches tooFast on crutches too

Or when it comes to a group of youths in Monrovia, no matter their disabilities.
Most of the lads in the group of about 22, ranging in age from 15 to 20, were left disabled after contracting polio when young.

Use of hands allowed

After intense vaccination campaigns Liberia was declared polio-free in 2006 with World Health Organisation statistics showing no cases for 2005, but the disease, which affects mostly children under five, re-emerged in recent years in remote communities, partly attributed to an inflow of refugees from violence in bordering countries and well as cases stemming from Nigeria, which is still endemic for polio. NGOs such as Unicef and Merlin as well the Liberian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare continue efforts through vaccination campaigns to keep the disease at bay.
Polio is a viral disease that attacks the nervous system, leaving some of those infected with paralysis of limbs. The football lads use wheelchairs but many can get along using crutches and when they play by running on all fours, dragging their legs behind them. They enjoy wheelchair racing too and proudly show their picture of them with their medals taken after the inaugural Liberian marathon and fun run last year.

Fast on crutches too

Their style of soccer is rather special. Certainly when you can’t use your feet there has to be some rule changes, such as allowing use of hands. And they are good, bending that ball with the best of them. Watching them play you realise that even some able bodied players would be hard put to keep up.
There are other challenges besides disability. The small vacant lot near Mamba Point that they practise on is hard and ridden with stones and only a few of them have boots. “He was a best player in that tournament we had,” Samula Dennis proudly says of Saye Wehyee, who neatly swings his legs around to pass, setting up an easy shot at goal for his team mate, then tsks sadly when he notices Saye’s skin-torn feet.
They had an organised tournament on flat level of beach once with help from an NGO and would love to experience such a tournament again if they could get support to do so. Until then they keep playing and practising the game loved the world over, dreaming like many boys of that perfect goal.

Riding Towards Sustainable Development


In a country burgeoning with traffic congestion, increasing economic growth, and a stark urban-rural divide, Ghana’s Bamboo Bikes Initiative could promote sustainable development, boost trade, and address a number of U.N. Millennium Development Goals in the process.

Established in 2009, the Bamboo Bikes Initiative was created by a group of young people, including science, engineering, and marketing students, to empower other youth, by training them to build and market bamboo-framed bicycles.

“We know that most of the youth on the streets are without work,” said Bernice Dapaah, the initiative’s Executive Director.  “We spoke with them, and they’re saying there are no jobs… So we have to make sure that, day in and day out, we come up with skill-development activities that will be more sustainable for them,” she explained.

In partnership with Africa Items Co Ltd, the initiative pays apprentices $30 USD for their labour, and sells the bicycle frames abroad for $350 USD each. Their primary market is in Europe, where BambooRide, an Austrian company, imports the frames and assembles the bicycles for sale.

“Roughly one year ago, we went down to Ghana and we got to know [the team],” said Matthias Schmidt, BambooRide’s Sales Manager.  “We were developing the frame together… because the frames were good, but they had to fit a certain European standard. So it was like a partnership, a knowledge transfer in both directions,” he said.

The Austrian importers also provided the initiative with new equipment to improve precision and boost their product’s international marketability. Schmidt said he looks forward to the initiative’s continued expansion.

“[Their] capacity is limited… and in the case that we need more than 10 frames a month – that’s the maximum capacity – we’ll need other sources. So we’re supporting [Dapaah’s] efforts to improve the equipment and technology,” he said.

Eradicating Poverty and Unemployment

The Bamboo Bikes Initiative offers apprenticeships and permanent placements at the Africa Items Co Ltd workshop in Accra, where Ibrahim Djan Nyampong, the initative’s technical advisor and Master Trainer, teaches young people how to assemble, fix, and market the bicycles.

“So far I’ve trained about ten boys,” he said. “They can build the bikes, but it’s not up to the quality control level, so we are still training them,” he explained.

[pullquote]”Each artisan, after their training, will also be equipped to employ at least five or six people.”[/pullquote]

The UNDP’s Global Environment Facility sponsors the initiative through its Small Grants Program. George Orstin, the National Programme Coordinator, explained that graduated trainees will establish their own workshops, and begin to train more young people.

“Each artisan, after their training, will also be equipped to employ at least five or six people, and to set up their own small-scale production base [in] any part of the country,” he said.

By training and employing young people, the initiative is designed to reduce unemployment and, consequently, rural poverty. It is also intended to abate the rural-to-urban migration trend prominent in Ghana.

“It will reduce the youths rushing to come to the cities to engage in income generating activities,” said Dapaah. “A workshop at the rural communities, that will really help them, rather than them coming to the cities,” she explained.

The Bamboo Bikes Initiative also curbs rural-to-urban migration by supporting bamboo farmers. Dapaah said that, so far, the organization has trained ten farmers to harvest new crops for bicycle production. They employ young people in the town of Suhum, and pay them based on a contract signed with the local chief.

Ensuring Environmental Sustainability

By harvesting new bamboo crops, said Dapaah, the initiative is also making a commitment to ecological sustainability.

“If we cut one bamboo, we make sure to plant at least three or five more,” she explained.

Orstin said that bamboo conservation is a key element of the UNDP’s partnership with the initiative.

“By promoting the conservation of bamboo, you are introducing a carbon sink, and at the same time… promoting alternative uses of bamboo for other purposes,” he said.

The initiative also works to protect the environment by producing organic and recyclable products, rather than metal or carbon fibre frames, which require high levels of energy at every stage of production – from extraction to manufacturing.

[pullquote] “If we cut one bamboo, we make sure to plant at least three or five more.” [/pullquote]

Instead, bamboo bicycles are made from 80% local material, which, according to Nyampong, not only enables producers to avoid expensive import costs, but also eliminates the carbon emissions that would arise from the transport of imported materials into the country.

Dapaah said that, while not all Ghanaians may be conscious of the environmental benefits of the bicycles, most are aware of the surging motor vehicle traffic in the cities, and are eager to circumvent it.

“The traffic situation in the country in general is increasing, and when traffic increases it has its associated environmental issues,” explained Isaac Osei, the Ashanti Regional Director for Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency.

There are 30 motor vehicles for every 1000 people in Ghana, and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority registers hundreds more each day. Data suggests that vehicle ownership will continue to rise, as the country hits record levels of GDP growth per capita.

Osei noted some of the harmful impacts of increased vehicle use, including carbon dioxide emissions and pollution from dust particles on dirt roads.

“To actually educate people to use bicycles [rather] than vehicles, I think it is good for the country and the world as a whole,” he said.

Dapaah said the prospect of avoiding traffic jams, as well as the low price of bamboo bikes relative to cars, should fuel the bicycles’ domestic market.

Improving Education, Health, and Gender Equality

But the bicycles are not only designed for Ghana’s city dwellers; some models are intended specifically for rural residents.

“We’ve done… studies, especially in rural communities where transportation is very bad, and we want to use this as an alternative source of transportation for students, because some students walk miles from home before they get to their schools,” Dapaah explained.

Nyampong also builds “bamboo cargo bikes,” to help farmers transport their products to markets, and is working with engineers from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands to design a “bamboo ambulance bike,” intended to assist expectant mothers in need of urgent medical attention.

“We’ve learned that there is a high rate of maternal mortality in Ghana,” explained Dapaah. “We have some remote areas [where] transportation is very bad… so we’re trying to come out with the bamboo ambulance,” she added.

She said the initiative is also intended to empower rural women by providing special training for them in the production, manufacturing, and riding of the bicycles.

Enhancing Global Partnerships

At present the organization is focusing on expanding production: creating new, diversified bamboo products, and developing new partnerships.

In 2009, the project won the Clinton Global Initiative Award, and in 2010, the UNEP Seed Initiative award. It also garnered international attention in June when it received a World Business and Development Award at the 2012 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

“Ever since [then], a lot of donors are trying to engage in our project, to see how best they can collaborate or partner with us,” Dapaah said.

As for their trade relations, BambooRide’s Schmidt said the Austrian importers are happy with the partnership, and see it as their own brand of “fair trade.”

“Fair trade comes by itself, because we are in partnership with the Ghana bamboo company and we are on… the same level,” he said, adding, “Do business the proper way, and it’s fair trade anyway.”

 

5

Breaking News, Breaking Hearts: How Ghanaian Media Handles Tragedy

My colleagues at Ultimate Radio watch the television as news breaks of President Mills' death Tuesday afternoon

Journalists make the news. They find the issues, gather the reports, and tell the stories. But how they do this can have a lasting impact on audiences – sometimes as resonant as the stories themselves.  At jhr, we care a lot about how the news is told, so I was naturally interested in the media’s reaction yesterday when Ghana’s president, John Atta Mills, passed away unexpectedly – just months before the December 2012 national election.

“This is the first time it’s happened to us. We had heard about other presidents in other African countries who had died on the job, but it was quite distant from us. So when this happened, it was a blow to me as a Ghanaian,” explained Kofi Owusu, the head of Ultimate Radio.

“I actually shed a tear when I heard the news,” he added. “I was shocked into a state of helplessness, of not really knowing what to do.”

But Owusu is not only a Ghanaian – he is also an award-winning journalist and a prominent member of the media – and he knew he had a responsibility to carry the story as quickly and professionally as possible. He promptly called some contacts in Accra to confirm the news.

“When as I was confirming with friends there, I was typing my [radio script] intro already,” he said, “because news has to go on.”

Ghanaians have been long been speculating about the state of President Mills’ health. Last month, he travelled to the United States for what his party deemed a “routine check-up,” and upon returning to Ghana was seen jogging on the tarmac in front of the press. But many remained skeptical, as he noticeably stopped speaking on the campaign trail, opting only to wave to the public instead.

[pullquote]”Don’t overdo it. Don’t get carried away by the sensationalism.”[/pullquote]

The media have been on the frontline of the mania, analyzing Mills’ every action and attributing each one to his deteriorating health. There have been several reports of his death in recent months, but each time he resurfaced to dispel the rumours. In a country where horror always sells, this kind of sensationalism thrives.

Despite speculations, however, the confirmation of Mills’ death still came as a shock to the majority of Ghanaians.

“I was speechless. You hear people talking, he’s sick, he’s not sick … but we were all thinking that we could see him run for the NDC in December,” said Ultimate Radio journalist Nana Oye.

Production staff rush to plan the station's coverage of Mills' death. Within minutes of receiving confirmation, we were able to broadcast the news.

I was with her when the news first broke. She was immediately overcome with emotion, but within minutes, was able to join a handful of others in the studio to calmly and composedly discuss the event on air. I was impressed by their tact in doing so.

“It’s not enough to just break the story,” noted Owusu. “It’s what you do from then on – because once you break the story, people would like to know more about what’s going to happen,” he explained.

He said the station aimed to take a levelheaded approach to the story. As for dramatics, he said, “Don’t overdo it. Don’t get carried away by the sensationalism.”

Unfortunately not all editors in Ghana think this way, and it is difficult to avoid sensationalism after such an event; other stations played the frantic cries or incomprehensible babble of callers throughout the day.

But none of the Ghanaians I spoke to expect to see an extreme national reaction to the President’s death. They hardly expect it to impact the December elections, let alone instigate riots or instability.

“Traditionally, and by customs, Ghanaians respect the dead a lot,” explained Owusu. “And Ghanaians being who they are, they’re going to observe that [mourning period] out of respect. If there’s going to be a state burial, you’ll see Ghanaians from all sides coming up to file past the body or to pay homage to the President,” he said.

[pullquote]“It’s not enough to just break the story; it’s what you do from then on.”[/pullquote]

The death does appear to have quelled the inter-party aggression characteristic of Ghanaian politics. Nana Akufo-Addo, the leader of the opposition New Patriotic Party, has suspended his campaign to mourn with Ghanaians.  Owusu expects that, if anything, the Presidential death will have a pacifying effect on the upcoming elections.

“[Previously,] there was so much divisiveness and the debate was just vicious,” he said. “Now the man who was at the receiving end is gone. Your enemy is down – you don’t keep flogging him. So it’s believed that it will tone down the hot exchanges. The acerbic tone will be considerably reduced, towards elections, which will have a common effect on the political landscape for all of us,” he predicted.

“There are even calls from leaders that Ghanaians should use this occasion to unite,” he added.

That could be a blessing in disguise in a country where most news sources are visibly split along partisan lines, and fail to push beyond the bickering of party rhetoric to the real political issues.

But if Ghanaians are to use the death as an opportunity to unite, and to look beyond political divisions to their common goals and challenges, the media must play a role as well.

“I think that, as the media, we have to stay focused,” said Owusu. “Because, as I’ve said, matters of state must go on, things must be done. We’ve sworn in the new President; [now] there should be some kind of assurance from the presidency that everything is under control, because that is what we expect of our leaders,” he said.

Will the ruling party, the National Democratic Congress, hold a congress to elect a new candidate, or will John Dramani Mahama, the newly acclaimed President, remain as the party flag bearer?

Owusu said the news stations should not dwell on the shock factor, but rather begin to ask the important questions at hand.

“After the death has been announced, what’s going to happen in parliament? What’s going to happen with the next person? We went to the Constitution, which clearly had steps to be taken to swear in the Vice-President, so we knew that was the procedure, and decided to stay with it and make sure that our listeners were informed,” he explained.

“There are questions to be asked in the days ahead – and they should be asked,” he added.

Ghanaians could use the untimely event as a source of unification. They could take the opportunity to step back from the frenzy of political campaigning and remember what they are really fighting for. They might just be able to do so – provided the media upholds its responsibility, and begins to ask the right questions.

Kofi Owusu and his fellow journalists crowd into the studio to break the news to the nation. Owusu (second from right) said the media has a public duty to address the story as tactfully as possible.