Tag Archives: Juba

The Ups and Downs in the Life of a JHR Trainer

By: Grant McDonald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting Fires Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power Struggle

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

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

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

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

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

Workshop

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion of human rights during a JHR workshop

Discussion of human rights during a JHR workshop

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

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

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

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

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

Congratulating a JHR-trained journalist receiving his certificate

Congratulating a JHR-trained journalist receiving his certificate

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

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

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

jhr trainees

Group shot of journalists with JHR certificates

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

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

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

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

 

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 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.