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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

 

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.

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.

Reflections from JHR’s first year in Tanzania

In February 2013, we launched JHR’s first program in Tanzania. A year later, JHR Trainer Rosella Chibambo reflects on the impact for students at Saint Augustine University.

This is JHR’s first year at Saint Augustine University of Tanzania, and the university’s journalism program is widely regarded as one of the country’s best.

Located in Tanzania’s Lake Zone region, a hot spot for human rights abuses in the country, SAUT offers students the opportunity to study journalism in a place in regular need of quality human rights reporting.

Members of the Mwanza, Tanzania JHR Student Chapter set up a film shot.

Members of the Mwanza, Tanzania JHR Student Chapter set up a film shot.

JHR’s work at SAUT began with a series of human rights reporting workshops attended by male and female students in almost equal numbers. The students were particularly interested in women and children’s rights, as well as press freedom issues.

In collaboration with the journalism department, local NGOs and media organizations, fellow JHR trainer Roohi Sahajpal, and I are planning a media forum on violence against women. We hope this event will encourage students and local media to look more critically at the impact their reporting has on Tanzanian women and their families.

With the help of SAUT’s Legal and Human Rights centre, I have been further developing human rights curriculum begun by my predecessor, Ashley Koen. The journalism department is currently working to implement a new human rights reporting certificate program at SAUT. Even though it will take well over a year to bring this project to life, staff and students have expressed a sincere desire to strengthen SAUT’s reputation for producing quality human rights reporters. One of my most devoted students, Kamilo Albira, has been working tirelessly over the last few months, to develop an English language human rights radio program to be broadcast on the campus station. This will be the only English program broadcast by the station and will appeal to students coming from outside Tanzania, as well as local students. JHR’s program in Tanzania is generously supported by 

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Malawi’s economic crunch hits the media hard

Employees of The Daily Times and other BP&P papers have been laid off as Malawi faces economic difficulties. Photo by Travis Lupick.

“Dear brethren,” Leonard Chikadya, managing director of Blantyre Printing and Publishing, began the conclusion of a speech to staff on Aug. 30. “With a lot of pain in my heart, I have swallowed my pride and, reluctantly, decided that I am going to reduce our head count. I am going to reduce the number of colleagues that we have by 44.”

Speaking for the leadership of the largest publishing house in Malawi, Chikadya’s words soon reverberated throughout the media environment of the entire country.

And they were not the only ones.

On the same day, the state-run Malawi Broadcasting Corporation announced that a significant round of layoffs would hit its ranks too. The following morning, just 418 remained of the 700 employees who comprised MBC the day before.

In a packed cafeteria at BP&P’s head office in Blantyre, Chikadya showed remorse for the situation.

“I have called this meeting because this problem affects all of us,” he said to some 150 of the company’s 260 staff. “We were all witness to what happened on the 20 of July…but what happened on the 20 of July was just a symptom of the problems we are facing.”

The date Chikadya referenced was initially reserved for peaceful demonstrations aimed at government inaction on foreign reserve shortages and fuel scarcity. But the people’s anger boiled over and by nightfall, riots met with police brutality left 19 dead and scores more injured.

And so, yesterday, BP&P’s editors, reporters, salespeople, and everybody else that a publishing house requires to function, were told that financial hardships matched by the government’s mismanagement of the economy had reached their doorstep.

“We are all aware of the acute shortage of forex,” Chikadya explained, referring to the country’s dwindling foreign currency reserves. Requests for loans from Malawi’s cash-strapped banks had been denied and negotiations with BP&P’s paper supplier had hit a wall. If action was not taken, Chikadya continued, BP&P would no longer have the capacity to pay for the broadsheet on which it prints Malawi’s news.

Throughout the rest of the day, envelopes circulated as reporters manned their desks until the last of their stories were filed. Even those who knew they were on their way out remained loyal.

“Don’t show it to me,” one was heard as a letter was dropped on his desk. “I will file my article and be gone by the end of the day.”

The morning of Aug. 31, those who remained spoke with nervous optimism. “We live to fight another day,” one BP&P reporter said.

I’m sure the mood over in the newsroom at MBC was similar.

Malawi’s economy is struggling badly. On Aug. 31, two of the country’s biggest media houses felt the weight of these hard times. And 326 of their employees carried it home.

Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick.