Tag Archives: journalism

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.”

From refugee camp to radio studio: Onen Walter’s path to human rights media

Onen Walter was not interested in journalism when he was younger. Living in a refugee camp for a decade can make it difficult to plan for the future – let alone a successful one.

Onen Walter and Grant Macdonald, JHR’s team in South Sudan.

Onen was born in 1980 in Pajok, a community in the east corner of South Sudan near the border of Uganda. When he was just three-years-old, the country spiraled into a brutal civil war with the Sudanese government fighting the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, and Onen’s happy life changed forever.

As the fighting spread across the country, Onen and his family left their town to find safety. Sometimes they crossed the border to Uganda – four days walk from their home. Life was difficult and dangerous.

Onen had learned to be very independent, but when he was fourteen had to grow up even faster. Trapped in a rebel stronghold and unable to escape, Onen was separated from his family.  Isolated and alone, he had to fend for himself as he tried to find his younger brother. After two years on his own, doing his best to avoid the fighting, Onen found safety at a refugee camp in Uganda. To his great joy, he found his younger brother living safely in the camp. The small family was reunited.

Over the next ten years, Onen did whatever kind of work he could to survive, “life wasn’t easy,” he explained. Many days he would spend hours making charcoal and selling it to support himself and his brother.

A change

In 2005, after more than twenty years of fighting, a peace deal was signed in Sudan. In 2011, South Sudan became an independent country.  The next year, Onen returned home, determined to make a new life in his country.

Onen Walter prepares for a JHR training workshop.

Onen Walter prepares for a JHR training workshop.

Onen’s first goal was to get educated. He joined the Free International University of Moldova in 2008, majoring in Ecological Studies. But his studies were cut short when the State Government expelled the university from the country.

Angry at the closure, and with no answers from the government, Onen, and some of his friends decided they needed to do something about it – to become a voice for the voiceless.

Onen’s first introduction to journalism was a course at the Multi-Media Training Center in South Sudan’s captial city  Juba. He learned the basics of radio production from veteran journalists at Juba Radio and he was a natural. Onen had found his calling.

After his training, Onen started working at South Sudan Radio as an Announcer. He also reported for South Sudan TV.  Four years later, Onen became Acting News Editor for 88.4 City FM and eventually became an International Correspondent with Radio France International (RFI) in South Sudan. Onen considers his move to journalism “a blessing.”

Onen is now 34 years-old and a seasoned journalism professional. He is the newest member of JHR’s team and he is using his expertise give back to the media community by to training his South Sudanese journalism colleagues in strong human rights reporting. Onen’s work represents the beginning of the larger ripple effect of JHR training. His training today will reverberate throughout his country for years to come in the form of strong, balanced journalism and upholding human rights.

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.”

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.

Slow and unsteady: Ghana’s Freedom of Information Bill

The entrance to the Parliament of Ghana. The Freedom of Information Bill has, in one form or another, been meandering through Parliament since 2003.

July 7th marked the 30th anniversary of the day Canada’s Access to Information Act received royal assent, becoming law. Within a year the law had come into full force and Canada had joined dozens of other countries committed to government transparency and press freedom. As of January 2012, 90 countries have established nationwide laws ensuring the public’s right to request and receive government-held information.

In 2000, South Africa became the first African country to pass Right to Information legislation. Since then, seven other nations, including Nigeria, Uganda and even Zimbabwe have followed suit. Although Article 21 of Chapter 5 in the 1992 Constitution of Ghana states, “All persons shall have the right to information, subject to such qualifications and laws as are necessary in a democratic society,” making one of a few constitutions that guarantee a fundamental right to information, no right to information law exists.

There have, however, been attempts to adopt such a law; the latest of which is sitting motionless in Parliament. The Right to Information Bill, as it was called at the time, was first drawn up in 2003, and went through the drafting and a public consultation process that year. It became stuck in cabinet and lapsed in 2004. The next year the processes had to start again. It wasn’t until 2009 that the second attempt, the Freedom to Information Bill, was finally submitted to Cabinet. It was forwarded to parliament in March 2010, where it has remained, inert.

Such stagnation contradicts a string of political promises. During the 2008 election, the now ruling National Democratic Congress promised Ghanaians that, if elected to government, they would pass the Freedom of Information Bill as soon as possible to demonstrate a commitment to fighting corruption.

The sun sets on Independence Arch in Accra. Ghana’s 1992 Constitution is unique in that it guarantees a fundamental Right to Information.

Parliament Majority Leader, Cletus Avoka, promised that before parliament rises on July 27, 2012 for a three-month recess the bill will be passed. However, he has since reneged, stating in May that “Passage of the Freedom of Information Bill was less important and for that matter, not a priority among various bills currently under consideration by Parliament for passage.”

Now, with only two weeks before a recess that will last until late October, and with only one month of parliamentary sessions left until it dissolves again for December’s election, it is clear the bill will not become law anytime soon.

“They [the government officials] have reservations about the widening transparency and the widening accountability that would come with Right to Information Legislation,” said Nana Oye Lithur, executive director of the Human Rights Advocacy Centre and the convener of the Right to Information Coalition in Ghana. The Right to Information Coalition was created in 2003 and is comprised of journalists as well as members from the National Media Commission, religious bodies, non-governmental organisations, and the Ghana Bar Association. It seeks to mobilize public support for the bill and advocate the government to expedite its passage.

“There’s just no political commitment,” she added.

This is a major problem, as activists and journalists agree Ghana needs the Freedom of Information Bill.

“I think that [the Freedom of Information bill] is a very
positive development which will go a long way to enhance the battle against corruption…it will strengthen the Ghanaian journalist to expose the many corrupt institutions that we have in this country,” said Richard Sky, the parliamentary reporter at Citi FM.

“When it comes to parliament there are so many things that are held out of the public view…once you can have access to information, information is a weapon. Once you have it, you can use it in so many ways to kill this rather monstrous institution of corruption that we have in this country,” he added.

Nana Oye Lithur agrees. The bill will empower Ghanaian journalists and citizens to demand answers and fight corruption.

“It will enhance transparency and accountability. We have serious issues with corruption…[within] every regime we have had some bribe and corruption related cases,” she said.

“Research has shown that with access to information regimes there comes a reduction in corruption… we need to ensure the little resources we have as a country are actually optimized and used to improve the lives of the people of Ghana, and not to go into a few pockets.”

Ghanaian journalist lectures JHR chapter about rights media

Francis Npong speaks at the jhr-IIJ media forum

Photo by Robin McGeough

On May 19, the JHR chapter at Tamale’s International Institute of Journalism hosted a community forum about witchcamps.

Among the speakers was human rights journalist Francis Npong, the northern correspondent for The Enquirer newspaper. When Npong addressed the students, he gave a solid introduction to rights media in the Northern Region.

Here is an abridged transcript of his speech. For un-edited audio, listen here.

On choosing a career in journalism

“Now as journalists, if I asked this question: ‘Why are you here? Why do you want to be a journalist?’. If your answer is ‘I want to be rich’, you have chosen [the] wrong profession. I am telling you. If you say ‘I want to be loved by everybody, because journalists are supposed to be popular’, this is the wrong profession or the wrong idea … You are not supposed to be loved by any other person or to be rich. Journalism is … a profession that does reward [financially].”

On journalists’ loyalty

“The journalist[‘s] loyalty, should not be to the state. It should be to individuals and the public. I define my public as the weak, the poor, the sick, the marginalized. Let’s talk about the marginalized; those who do not have any power or the voice to say whatever they feel like saying.”

On the role of journalists in Ghana

“Now, the world is changing. The role of the media or journalists now goes beyond just the traditional role of informing, educating [and ] entertaining. The world needs journalists today more than 30 years ago. This century needs more dedicated journalists than any other century.

Why am I saying all [this]? You can see a lot of things happening… We used to say people didn’t have education, now [someone in] every house somebody has completed [secondary school] and the probability that the person reads or writes is very high.

So why are we still reporting on human rights abuses? And a whole lot of issues that do not speak well of us. That is why there is the need for us to step up [with] our profession, our education to be journalists so we can [correct] the situations that are all over … even within our houses.”

On protecting the identities of survivors of human rights abuses

“People put images of abused children, women or whoever in front [pages] without regard for their dignity… That is very bad. Recently … I published a story on allegations of witches … I put a picture and when you look at it, you will see an image but you cannot see the face. That is an aspect of human rights journalism. You see, you put the picture there and people should not be able to identify the image vividly. Because if I see the woman walking on the road, I’ll say ‘Ah, is that not the woman I saw in the papers?’. So that marginalization will continue.”

On the intentions of journalists

“Society is dynamic. Norms, regulation and rules in society can be changed depending on the activeness of journalists… But we are doing this consciously … in line with professionalism. In journalism, we call it the big five principal. In everything that you do, there must be:

  • The truth
  • Accuracy in what you are doing
  • You must be independent, do not allow yourself to be influenced.
  • In all that you do, you must be fair
  • Commitment to minimize harm in all that you do.

In Rwanda, all the genocide that happened was just [from] the pen of a journalist, who caused that mess … What have you gained from the [genocide]?

In journalism, we are writing, not because of writing’s sake. If you … want to write as a journalist, because you can to write and get a main by-line, forget it! That is not the motive for a journalist … ”

On the dangers of human rights reporting in Tamale

“When I came to Tamale, people asked ‘How can you leave Kumasi … and come to Northern Region to do what, you want to be killed?’. I said no, I want to be part of the change. If there is a change today, I am happy to be part of the change.

In 2004, when were writing issues of corruption, bad governance, women’s rights abuses … For years, I was not sleeping my house. I am telling you, some of us [journalists] survived the storm.
I came here under flying bullets, flying stones and we were there to cover live [events].

It came to a time that I was accused by a police commander … of stealing a document in his office. Look at your safety. How [safe] are you? So it was a bad time to operate as a journalist and human rights journalism was very difficult to practice. But some of did it under a disguise.”

On interviewing survivors of human rights abuse

“You don’t ask silly questions. You must know what you are all about. You must be free to let anything to go through your ears and stay in your mind. But you must be able to sieve it, to be able to make an impact that you want to.

In the witches camp or refugee camp, you will not see them smiling. [So] you should not enter there and start to smile. Look at the mood of the situation and adjust yourself to that mood. Make sure that your lifestyle attracts the person closer to you. If not, they will shy away from you. Those are some of the tricks that when you are going to approach a victimized person you must learn to adopt this style. If not, you will go and you will not come away with the story.

You must build trust between yourself and the victims.

You must never reveal your source of information.”

On gender

“You go to every sector in society and you see that men are on top. And any woman who makes it to the top, they call her a ‘witch’, ‘iron lady’ or a whole lot of names. Do you ever see a man nicknamed like that? No. We are giving our women hell.”

Fighting for the front page: The challenges of environmental reporting in Malawi

In Malawi, parliamentary proceedings and political scandals dominate the headlines and radio waves.  Whether it is a mere press conference or cabinet reshuffling, journalists jump at the chance to report on governmental affairs. The prevalence of political coverage, however, means that other issues are sidelined.

The country’s state of underdevelopment, coupled with intermittent electricity and water shortages, serve as a constant reminder that there is a long way to go in the creation of even the most basic infrastructure.

Undoubtedly, sustainable energy and water management are worthy topics of discussion. Furthermore, clear-cutting in Malawi’s northern region has left large tracks of land barren, and poaching has devastated animal populations in the country’s national parks and game reserves. Nevertheless, such pressing environmental issues remain largely ignored by the mainstream media.

In recent years, a multilateral effort to encourage journalists to cover environmental issues has been underway. Various organizations under the United Nations (UN) banner, including the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), are behind this push driven by global objectives – namely the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

For the past two years, MIJ FM reporter Anthony Masamba has been a regular participant in environmental reporting workshops.

Masamba explained that at these workshops, journalists are trained to understand the linkages between climate change and a range of issues, from agriculture and health, to transport. Through these sessions “journalists have been imparted with skills that allow them to write good stories from an informed perspective, as most of these journalists have not been trained to report on environmental issues,” he said. While “most of them have knowledge in journalism – they know how to write,” Masamba explained that many journalists have yet to grasp the technical languages and jargon of environment and climate change.

For this reason, the Malawi Institute of Journalism (MIJ) offers an Environmental Reporting class for certificate and diploma-level students. The course aims to equip students with knowledge on major environmental issues facing the contemporary world, as well as stimulate interest in the topic. The curriculum encompasses environmental issues, ethics, policies and legislation, as well as the idea of sustainable development.

MIJ student Patrick Botha believes that workshops and coursework are a valuable means by which to encourage journalists and journalism students to work to ensure a sustainable environment. “[Journalists] have a role to play and it is their duty to inform the masses and expose issues. There is a need to engage these journalists to create an interest in them to report on such issues,” Botha said.

Undoubtedly, journalists play a crucial role in information dissemination, knowledge acquisition and overall awareness. While media houses are a useful outlet for the promotion of sustainable development and campaigning for social change, clear challenges remain.

“Here in Malawi, if a newspaper is to sell, it must have a political story on the front page,” Masamba explained. “No one will buy a paper with a headline that reads climate change impacts development – Malawians want to read about politics. If a paper has politics on the front page, it will sell like hot cakes,” he added.

At the same time, further challenges arise as a result of the hierarchical newsroom structure. Masamba outlined a typical scenario: “I can have an idea for a story. I write my letter seeking financial support but if my request is not approved, what do I do? I just sit because I cannot support myself to go that far to do just a story.”

Botha explained that for journalists concerned with nabbing a front-page byline, there is even less motivation to report on environmental issues. With such an article, “they will probably make the third, fourth, or twentieth-something page.” According to Botha, another deterrent “is the belief that the majority of people will not bother to read [an environmental story] unless they have nothing better to do.”

Despite the workshops and other efforts, Masamba attests that the impact has not been realized due to a lack of political will. “At the moment in Malawi we do not have a climate change policy. This is a policy that would provide guidelines through which climate change issues can best be addressed or integrated into various programs,” he explained.

Masamba believes that the Malawian government’s failure to implement such a policy is unacceptable. “How do they handle climate change issues without having a climate change policy? This is a policy that would provide guidelines, but they don’t have it,” he explained. “We as journalists have our own challenges, but the government, on their part, must show political will,” Masamba said.

As for the future of environmental reporting in Malawi, Masamba has high hopes. His optimism stems from the country’s new leadership, which has already outlined a way forward. For instance, in place of the Ministry of Energy, Natural Resources and Environment the Joyce Banda administration has established the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. “In coming up with this ministry, I think this government has shown political will towards addressing issues to do with climate change,” Masamba said.

“You are doing great job” : feedback from stakeholder in Tamale

“How long we waiting?”, Lucy asks, as we sit under a small mango tree.

We are sitting outside the Cienfuegos Suglo Specialist Hospital, an obstetrics hospital in Tamale, Ghana and my patience is growing thin.

The hospital’s director, Dr. Barnabas B. Naa Gandau, is yet to arrive for the day and it’s already 3 p.m. .
We got here at 11 this morning. The head midwife, Hajia Fati Mahama, welcomed us to the nursing station and let us watch as they cleaned instruments and filled charts. But they won’t speak to us “on the record” until the hospital administrator arrived. Like most institutions in Ghana, we are side-lined by endless bureaucracy.

Lucy, my pupil, is impatient to leave while I try to stall. A nurse runs out after us, just in the nick of time.

“He will be here soon. You will see.”
As if it was summoned, a gleaming silver SUV pulls down the red, dirt road. It pulls into the makeshift garage, under a small gazebo awning.I leap to the SUV’s doors, to intercept Gandau.

Soon we are being ushered into his office with its sparkling floor and top of the line computer. As soon as we sit down, Gandau asks for our credentials. I stammer.

“How do I know you who you say you are?” Gandau asks, skeptically.

We write down our names and contact information on scraps of paper, as a form of shotgun business card.

I quickly start explaining our intent. We’re here to do a story on Ghanaian attitudes about labour and delivery.
I tell Gandua I’m a human rights journalist and his ears perk up.

He lists the steps to gaining access to the hospital. First we will need a letter of introduction, printed on the station’s letterhead. Then we will need to file a list of questions we want to ask. This could take weeks. I persist that we need to speak to the nurses now. Eventually, he acquiesces.

We interview nurses, new mothers and a few gurgling babies. We get insightful and interesting tape. Lucy and I are ecstatic.

We rush back to the station and as I’m uploading the mp3s, I quickly check my email. The subject reads “trial” and there is no text. It’s from Gandau at the hospital.I send a reply; thanking him for letting us visit the hospital, making sure my jhr signature is attached.

A few days later, I get the following email:
“Just visited ur [sic] website and realize u [sic] are doing great job. God Bless you all.
Stay [sic]Blesed. -Dr. Barnabas B. Naa Gandau”.

See pictures from the Cienfuegos Suglo Specialist Hospital.