by Pia Bahile
“By the time you get on the plane, you’ve worried yourself out,” says Jessica McDiarmid. “You’re just like, ‘Whatever happens, happens.”
That’s how McDiarmid recalls July 8, the day that she left Canada for Ghana with nine other young journalists. The ten young people were on their way to media houses in Ghana and Malawi for six-month rights media internships under the auspices of jhr and the government of Canada’s International Youth Internship Program (IYIP).
In the past five months, the interns have been able to alert the world to their larger triumphs and missteps on the Toronto Star’s Africa Files blog and on jhr’s Field Notes blog, but they’ve also witnessed smaller successes that have made as lasting of an impact – in both the professional and the personal sense – for the interns and for their local colleagues.
As Rights Media Education Officers at MIJ, Heather MacDonald and Amy LeBlanc sit in on daily editorial meetings at MIJ FM, facilitate weekly human rights debates and encourage reporters to inject human rights angles into story pitches.
In their first month at MIJ, LeBlanc and MacDonald undertook the project of reviving the Weekend Express, the dormant online student publication, with a focus on human rights articles. They held an information session attended by excited MIJ students eager to tackle the project.
LeBlanc is working with Winston, MIJ’s web editor, and MIJ student and editor-in-chief Gracious Mulinga to relaunch the Weekend Express website, with plans for a blog, various sections and an archive.
“It was just about harnessing that energy so that [the MIJ students] have something to show future employers and about getting them excited to have something of their own,” says LeBlanc.
On Sept. 1, MacDonald and LeBlanc were proud to oversee the official launch of the jhr student chapter at MIJ, which saw 19 students campaigning keenly for nine executive positions. The chapter went on a field trip in October to raise awareness about jhr and fundraise.
“When I first started chapter, they said they really wanted to go out to the rural villages and report on the human rights issues there,” says MacDonald. “I feel that would be a huge accomplishment.”
Jessica McDiarmid remembers spending some of her early days at the Daily Guide in Accra sitting in the newsroom for hours wondering, “What should I do now?”
McDiarmid had been forewarned by Jenny Vaughan, jhr’s Overseas Program Coordinator, about the slower pace of affairs in Ghana. Vaughan told McDiarmid that what took a day to get done in Canada would likely take a week in Ghana and she’s found that to be true, often waiting upwards of three hours for an interviewee to show up to a pre-arranged meeting. But things both in and out of the newsroom slowly got better.
“To me, my great coup was when my editor introduced me to a group of people as ‘Jessica McDiarmid, from jhr, which is, like, a human rights journalist thing,’” says McDiarmid.
Another coup for McDiarmid was when she traveled to the Volta region of Ghana in August with Daily Guide journalist Sylvanus Nana Kumi to report on a leprosarium where leprosy sufferers were allegedly left to starve. Sensing a story there, McDiarmid asked Kumi to go with her to Volta, in Ghana’s east, but he was reluctant to go because he was not used to covering human rights issues. Kumi told McDiarmid that he had no money for transportation, but unperturbed, McDiarmid went to the Daily Guide’s business manager and was given funds to make the trip to Volta. They packed themselves into a tro-tro, the ubiquitous minivans that are at the heart of Ghana’s transportation system, and made their way to the leper colony, spending several days tracking down and interviewing everyone from a priest to a doctor to several residents suffering from leprosy living in terrible conditions.
Once they got back to Accra, McDiarmid reminded Kumi that he had to present both sides of the story, so he had to go and find out the government’s take on what was occurring at the leper colony. It took six hours and nine officers to get a few minutes with a government authority, but Kumi got the quotes that he needed and wrote two feature-length articles on the leprosarium.
“She helped me feel comfortable about writing from a human rights angle,” says Kumi, who wasn’t accustomed to writing features or human rights articles for the tabloid style Daily Guide.
“I think jhr’s work is quite important here,” says Kumi. “It takes time but now I’m a convert.”
After Kumi’s success writing about the leprosarium, McDiarmid collaborated with the Daily Guide’s publisher to start a tradition of running a human rights feature in the paper every Saturday.
In less than a month Amy, Andrea, Antoinette, Heather, Jessica, Michelle, Philippa, Scott, Sarah-Jane and Shawn will finish their internships in Ghana and Malawi, all hoping to have reached their main objective – bolstering and supporting the dissemination of rights media in both countries.
“My main goal is the same leaving as it was coming here,” says LeBlanc. “I wanted to see students publish an article that was properly researched, well balanced, addressed human right issues and grabbed attention. Several students have already done this, so my goal has already been accomplished.”
As their time as rights media interns comes to an end, several of the interns have decided to prolong their stay in Africa. Philippa Croome, Michelle Dobrovolny, Shawn Hayward, Jessica McDiarmid, and Antoinette Sarpong are all extending their journey for at least a few more weeks.
In Ghana are McDiarmid, Sarah-Jane Steele, Shawn Hayward, Scott Gill and Antoinette Sarpong.
In Malawi are Michelle Dobrovolny, Amy LeBlanc, Heather MacDonald, Andrea Lynett and Philippa Croome. Information on the IYIP interns can be found at the Toronto Star’s Africa Files blog.