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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

 

“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.

Journalists doubt information will soon be free in Ghana

 Ashley Terry is a senior producer with globalnews.ca. In the spring of 2013, she served as an expert trainer with Journalists for Human Rights in Ghana as part of the Shaw Africa Project.

Godfred Boafo. Ashley Terry, Global News

Godfred Boafo. Ashley Terry, Global News

ACCRA – Ghana may soon join a dozen other African countries with access to information legislation.

It has been a long time in the making – the legislation has languished for a decade. But even if it is passed, some Ghanaian journalists don’t believe the law will change a thing.

Philip Kofi Ashon, manager at CitiFM online in Accra (where I am spending three weeks as a trainer for Journalists for Human Rights), thinks the legislation might pass but won’t be enforced.

In his opinion, the government works too slowly to provide the information journalists need to meet reasonable deadlines.

It is a similar refrain heard by journalists in Canada. Global News requests access to information from the government frequently, but rarely gets a prompt reply.

Often our requests are rejected or the agency asks for an exorbitant amount of money. When we do get information, at times it comes in thousands of sheets of paper.

Press Freedom Index

The annual Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index ranks freedom journalists have in various countries, and the effort made by governments to ensure press freedom.

In the 2013 edition released in early April, Canada is 20th and Ghana places 30th, but Canada dropped 10 spots from the year before, while Ghana rose 11.

Canada now ranks below countries like Niger, Namibia, the Czech Republic and Jamaica (now the Western Hemisphere leader).

The explanation for Canada’s drop was obstruction of journalists during the “Maple Spring” and Bill C-30.

The rising Ghana is generally seen as a model of African press freedom. President John Mahama has expressed support for the freedom of information bill, saying in late March that he has “no fear of the right to information bill… I think parliament should pass it.”

But Hector Boham, president of the Corruption and Fraud Audit Consortium Ghana, is not optimistic, saying, “The bill will not pass because of the lack of political will. The African politician is corrupt to the core and corruption thrives in secrecy.”

But, Boham continues, if “by god’s grace,” the law passes, it will be effective because it will be supported by the courts.

“Investigative journalists will no longer face any impediments as they investigate cases of high level corruption.”

Having the court’s support in obtaining information would be welcome news to Godfred Boafo, sports reporter at CitiFM.

He went to Ghana’s National Sports Authority (NSA) to investigate rumours that funds were misappropriated by the agency during the 2011 All Africa Games in Maputo, Mozambique.

Boafo asked to see receipts of expenditure on the Games, but was denied. The NSA said it needed to know why he wanted to see the receipts, and he declined to give details on his potential story.

What ensued after that, he said, was “hell.”

Boafo went to various sports associations in Ghana to get the information, but after they all rejected his request, he took to the radio to press for the creation of an investigative committee.

And that, at least, was successful – a parliamentary committee released a report in March that the speaker of parliament called “damning.”

The National Sports Authority is now being audited by the sports minister, but Boafo still hasn’t received any information.

He says even after the audit, “I still won’t be able to see the documents, I can bet you that.”

Polio effects linger in Ghana despite vaccines

When Maclean Atsu Dzidzienyo contracted polio as a nine-year-old, his symptoms worsened to the point where his nerves were affected and his legs became paralyzed. Now an athletic 26-year-old, he expertly maneuvers his wheelchair around the dusty compound of the Accra Rehabilitation Center (ARC), where he is completing his year of national service in the Center’s financial department.

Complications caused by the poliovirus, such as paralysis, contribute to reports from the World Health Organization (WHO) that Ghana’s disability rate stands between seven and 10 per cent.

“The majority of the people [who live and work at the Center] became disabled through polio, and a few of them had accidents,” Dzidzienyo said. “Hardly you will hear of somebody who was born with his disability.”

Among other West African countries, Ghana has taken strong measures to eradicate polio in the country within the past few decades, and has made significant progress from the time when Dzidzienyo was a child.

No new cases of polio have been reported in West Africa in 2012, according to the Polio Eradication Initiative (PEI). Ghana’s last confirmed cases of polio were in 2009. That year, country health officials publically confirmed that eight children had contracted the virus, which was an increase by about five cases from the previous year. Before these comparatively minor outbreaks Ghana had enjoyed a period of being polio-free since 2003, according to the PEI.

This is a welcome change to Alexander Kojo Tetteh, the founder and CEO of the ARC. He also contracted the virus as a child and had his mobility impaired, though he still retains his ability to walk.

The desks at his primary school were very difficult to maneuver into and the set-up required that the children sit in pairs. No one wanted to sit next to him because they thought they could be infected by his disability, he said.

“Nobody was friendly. So I was not happy as a schoolchild,” Tetteh added.

Children can get inoculated in two ways: with an injection of a dead strain of the poliovirus, or take oral drops, which are typically the most popular in developing countries due to their ability to inoculate more people. The oral vaccine is less commonly used in developed nations because the efficacy of the vaccine depends on the strain of polio it is meant to eliminate, as it is a live culture. It can also change to the form of virus that can attack the patient, causing paralysis and nerve damage.

The poliovirus is now virtually eradicated in many countries around the world due to the development of polio vaccines in the 1950s and a global immunization campaign that began in the 1988. However, the virus can still be found in some countries in Africa and Asia. Ghana continues to have yearly mass polio inoculations. This year’s three-day campaign in March expected to reach about 5.8 million children under the age of five.

Zen and Goats: Last impressions of the little things in Tamale

I checked my phone – 9:30am. Half an hour had passed since my last meeting in Tamale was due to start. No sign of the big boss. Having waited up to 2 hours for meetings to start in the past, this was business as usual. This was my last day in Tamale and after a quick meeting with the principal it was back to packing, writing reports and saying goodbyes. I had planned for every moment to count, but this being Ghana, you have to go with the flow of the unexpected.

Rather than roll my eyes and carry on counting the goats in the courtyard, I figured this moment of calm in the warm Tamale sun on the balcony at my school was a keepsake of the bureaucratic tango of meetings in Ghana. “Remember this,” I whispered to myself.

“I am SOOOO sorry!”

I turned as I heard feet pounding and giant palms slapping the metal railing up the dusty staircase to the balcony I was leaning over.

“I had a problem with some guests. You know how they are, always rushing you around.”

It was the big man on campus, Al-Hajji Razak Saani, the recently appointed principal at the IIJ. I like Al-Hajji – he joined the school as principal at the same time I was preparing to leave.  I was gutted to have met such a welcoming man only to leave a few weeks later.  A man of the world, he spent much of his time in the US studying Communications, and the way he so authentically said “Chicaaaago” always cracked me up.

I assured him it was no problem. It had rained heavily the night before and the breeze was cool on the skin. I could have stood on that balcony for much longer, contently playing the tapes from my last six months in Tamale. But it was time for business.

Dusting off the couches with a flick of the rag, we sat down and asked each other about our families, the last meals we took and if our houses had survived the rains. All the boxes were checked.  I made a move for my bag and told him I had a gift. I handed over the tactile culmination of my time at the school: a curriculum document and guide for the jhr chapter for the next semester.

“I’ve been working on this for a couple weeks and I think it could be really useful for the school and the chapter. You guys can reference it and keep up the amazing work you’ve started.”

He brushed the cover with his hands and turned to take mine. I was taken aback but held on to see where he was going.

“You have given us so much. This book is so important to us, I can’t thank you enough.”

Being someone who is almost allergic to one-on-one praise, it was all I could do to squirm in my seat and just return the sentiments. I made a move to open up the book and walk him through it but his giant palms pressed it firmly shut.

“This program you are working on, I can’t thank you enough for the vision you have given our students. The worst thing in the world I could imagine would be to have this momentum come to a close.”

“So would I,” I said.

A montage of our workshops, brief moments in the hall, laughter, taps of chalk on board all came flooding back to me. I would have burst into tears if I hadn’t  bitten my lip so hard. “You guys have given me more than anything I could have asked for,” I stammered. “If you can keep this program going, then we will have all done our jobs.”

“I will do just that. Now tell me about this curriculum thing,” he said.

Just like the breeze on the deck and the taking of someone else’s hand in an unscheduled moment of zen, it’s the little things that have taught me can bring the biggest impact. While there was many a moment I was unsure of my impact, of what I were here to do, I’ve learned from my time in Ghana that no act is too small. Just as much, it has been in the little things, the little gestures and comments that have lead me to believe that jhr is making an impact on the lives of those it works with. Not always as grand and not always in the manner you expect, but if you keep your eyes and ears open like every good journalist should, you’ll see it.

Repatriating Ghana’s “Witches”

Ghanaian witch camps are a cultural phenomenon I have yet to fully experience and understand. Although I have read much about them and spoken to some people affected by accusations of witchcraft, I can only conjure a vague image of what it must be like to be banished from one’s village to live in poverty and severe segregation.

Witch camps are mainly located in the northern regions of the country, where belief in witches and the supernatural is generally much stronger than among the more cosmopolitan, urban areas along the coast.

All it takes is one accusation from a disgruntled, superstitious, or envious neighbour or relative to tarnish a reputation and drive out even the most well-respected women from a community.

Forced Out

These women, who typically leave their homes with no possessions, tend to gather together in camps where they eke out a living any way they can. The small economic and social communities they form become the infamous “witch camps” where they remain disempowered, and embody the gender disparity in Ghana.

“Anybody could be a victim,” says Hajia Boya Hawa Gariba, the deputy minister of Women and Children’s Affairs.

That’s why the Ministry is seeking to peacefully disband all of Ghana’s six witch camps over the next three years, she said, speaking with me in a phone interview that aired on Pravda Radio.

The Ministry has recently commissioned a task force involving the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), the domestic violence unit of the Ghana Police Service (GPS), the Department of Social Welfare, and the NGOs Action Aid Ghana and the Presby GO HOME Project, she said.

The goal is to repatriate and reintegrate the ostracized “witches” back to their homes and into society. Gariba says the root cause of banishment of witches is cultural beliefs “that have no place in society.”

Open Arms

In order for the women to return safely to their homes, the task force will be educating their communities on basic human rights, the law, and domestic violence. Educators have already been taking the families to the witch camps to show them how the women are living, and discussing the rationality of the beliefs.

For example, Gariba explains, accused witches are made to drink a concoction that is said to take away their power before they are banished. She argues it is against a person’s human rights to make them consume a questionable, and potentially harmful, substance against their will.

Despite consuming the drink, the women are still forced to leave, which makes no sense, according to Gariba, since the witch’s powers are supposed to be neutralized.

Educating communities has been making some gains in the reintegration process, and Gariba says the women’s security is the ministry’s primary concern. She says they also intend to make the women comfortable enough in the camps so that they do not die from exposure, but not enough so that they will not want to go back home.

“These people are human beings. There’s no point in leaving them there.”