Note: A version of this post was originally published on JHR.ca in 2015.
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. At home, I would always joke about very humid summer days being “Africa hot”, but they truly didn’t compare. Exhausted and completely out of my element, I did what most of the passengers on my flight did, I blindly followed other people who seemed to know their way across the chaotic ramp.
In Juba, the planes are parked and packed like cars used to be on game nights in the lot across from Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, no one leaves until the guy blocking you gets out first. It’s true I went to South Sudan as a manager of journalists, but Africa or no Africa, I’m still an aviation enthusiast. I believe the correct term is actually “geek”. If Dolce and Gabbana made a “light blue” cologne that smelled like jet fuel, I’d be the first to buy it. I am declaring what my colleague Peter Kent used to refer to as my “cockpit envy” in order to explain why I almost got whiplash crossing the steaming hot tarmac on my way to the so-called terminal building. There, gleaming in white under the hot African sun, were a dozen or so very rare Soviet-era, heavy-lift cargo aircraft, that I’ve only ever seen in pictures on the internet or in books. They are a common site in parts of Africa where the climate helps preserve their airframes, and worries about the filthy carbon exhaust spewed by their pure jet engines are non-existent.
My JHR trainer/host/fixer and survival guide, Grant McDonald, had previously warned me that people in South Sudan don’t like having their picture taken. That apparently goes double for soldiers and security officials. As I stared in awe at these flying Cold War era relics, I reflexively raised my camera and pointed it in the direction of the nearest Ilyushin-76 heavy transport. All I could think about was showing the pictures to my eldest son who is on his way to becoming a professional 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 from Africa (or anywhere for that matter) in under four minutes. A 7-foot tall security officer came up behind me and yanked me backward by my camera strap so hard I almost fell to the ground. In broken English, with angrily contorted facial expressions and a death grip on the strap, it quickly became apparent he intended to take my camera away, by force if necessary. I conveniently forgot my aviation geekiness and assumed my journalist persona as I regained my footing and got into a tug of war with the security giant as he barked demands about who gave me permission to take pictures on the tarmac.
Everyone has access to an AK-47
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, sugar, salt and flour, some of them, without any registrations, were likely hauling weapons. It might have been relatively peaceful in Juba at that moment, but the rest of the country lived under the tension of civil war, which could’ve erupted into another shooting war at any moment between opposing forces of the country’s two top leaders. In South Sudan everyone has access to an AK-47, including traffic cops. Weapons are absolutely everywhere.
I’ve held certain opinions about the United Nations, but at that moment I’d never been happier to see them. Out of nowhere, a U.N. peacekeeper from Uganda appeared beside me. As it turned out, the Ugandans peacekeepers, who lived in traditional huts surrounding the airport, were responsible for perimeter security. The soldier immediately tried to defuse my situation by telling the South Sudanese security giant that I would happily erase all the images I shot, so there was no need to confiscate the camera. At least I think that’s what he said, because just then the security officer released his death grip on my camera strap. DSLR cameras have electronic menus you call up on a small LED screen in back of the camera. Some quick thinking prompted me to call up the menu for erasing images, which I emphatically showed to the South Sudanese security officer, while placing the cursor over the ‘erase all images’ function. The great thing about DSLR cameras is that you need to press enter or OK to confirm that you want to delete images. Thankfully, the security officer didn’t have a copy of the operating guide and assumed I had erased the images. My son really enjoyed seeing pictures of all those rare birds when I got home.
Perspiring like crazy after my adrenaline rush, I made my way past security to 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.
The next stop was immigration inside the terminal. There’s a lot of paperwork involved in travelling to South Sudan, including a required letter from JHR inviting you to the country to help train fellow journalists. That letter gets sent to the South Sudanese embassy in Washington along with your passport where the Visa is issued, then gets sent back to you with the approved Visa stamps. A big thanks to my executive assistant, Cynthia Waite, who patiently helped get this done. Remember, you need to send the invitation letter to the South Sudanese embassy in Washington to get a Visa. Which is why the first thing the immigration officer in the terminal in Juba asked me for was the letter. I didn’t have the letter for the previously stated reasons. The immigration officer didn’t seem all that familiar with Visa procedures, insisting I couldn’t get into the country without an invitation letter. I was starting to feel very unwelcome, but remembered my ramp experience.
I talked my way into South Sudan a few minutes later and was thrilled to emerge from the terminal where I was met by Grant McDonald. Grant was absolutely the right guy to represent JHR in Juba. 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, overweight 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 most people, going to see The Lion King is the extent of their African experience. I was no different.
Everyone in Juba knew and respected Grant, from the Canadian ambassador to the local stringers and NGO representatives. Grant organized the two-day JHR event I helped run, and almost everyone showed up as a result of the great work he’d been doing there well in advance of my arrival. 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. By the way, you can transport tribal spears in your checked baggage.
Life in South Sudan
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 experienced. Very few were paved, and the ones that do have asphalt have to be regularly evacuated when the President or other top officials drive by. I was told that an official from a U.S. diplomatic compound had been shot a day earlier by security forces because he made the mistake of pulling out onto the roadway at the wrong time. 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 knee-deep in light blue plastic water bottles. It’s an environmental catastrophe. Water bottles are strewn 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 banana 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 motorbikes driven by a complete stranger. It was five minutes of sheer terror and easily one of the dumbest things I have ever done
Living in South Sudan is difficult. Conditions are terrible, even primitive by western standards. But there is something that makes life there tolerable, the warmth and optimism of the South Sudanese people.
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. It’s that warmth I remember most fondly.
Journalists for Human Rights’ work in South Sudan
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 is 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 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.
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 not coming across as the ‘Great White Hunter’, there to teach ‘primitive’ South Sudanese journalists about how we do things in Canada. News media was still developing in South Sudan, but they had been cleverly coming up with their own coping strategies to get their jobs done despite the opposition of government and the lack of public interest.
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 a 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.
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.
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.
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. When you talk to other journalists who’ve been to Africa on JHR projects they all tell you that once Africa gets into your head, it’s hard to forget about it. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my 6-days in South Sudan. My office is full of photographic reminders, and I’m proud to say that Grant McDonald now works alongside us in the Toronto newsroom. I look forward to the day I can go back to Africa and reconnect with journalists who are trying to build stroner media industries and better countries for the public they serve.
Ron Waksman is the Vice President, Digital for Global News and Corus Radio. He also has executive oversight of Global News editorial standards and practices.
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