It’s no secret that the world’s youngest country is dangerously allergic to journalism. But even by the repressive standards of fledgling South Sudan, a volley of bullets fired late one night in August registered exceptional shock.
Peter Moi, a reporter with the New Nation newspaper and the business weekly Corporate, took two to the back as he made his way home through the streets of the capital, Juba. He was the eighth journalist to die in South Sudan this year alone.
The timing of Moi’s murder by as-yet-unidentified gunmen was chilling beyond words. Just a few days earlier, President Salva Kiir had uttered what many interpreted as a point-blank threat, saying, “If any journalists do not know that this country has killed people, we shall demonstrate it one day, one time.”
Yet there remains a glimmer of hope in what happened next — hope that involves a front line team with the Toronto-based Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), who have spent the past year in South Sudan working to create space for quality journalism.
A large crowd of South Sudanese reporters gathered at the mortuary. And as Moi’s body was carried in, they decided on the spot to take a stand for press freedom with a 24-hour news blackout.
Grant McDonald, a former news anchor and reporter with Talk Radio AM640 and now veteran of previous JHR missions to Liberia, was at the mortuary in Juba to witness the moment of solidarity.
“There was shock and anger at seeing the body of a colleague. But then, to see all these young journalists stand together in unity was quite amazing. All private media in South Sudan came together on a blackout,” said McDonald.
“After that the president retracted the statement which had allegedly threatened the lives of journalists. That for me was a turning point in the understanding of those running the country of how powerful their media can be. I felt pride to have been a part of that.”
McDonald is in Toronto this week on the heels of his first year in Juba, together with South Sudanese journalist David de Dau, who escaped a life of forced conscription as a child soldier and now is helping lead the JHR effort on the ground. Both speak to the importance of maintaining the Canadian momentum as they ready to share their stories Thursday at JHR’s annual Night for Rights Gala and fundraiser at the Arcadian Court in Toronto.
JHR works on the premise that training for accuracy is a reporter’s first and best line of defence in a hostile environment — and for the past year, McDonald and Dau have put more than 160 South Sudanese journalists through the paces, mentoring them one-on-one. Graduates are then recruited to become trainers, sharing their skills in a residual loop designed to continue rolling long after the Canadian project winds down.
Said Dau: “Inaccurate reporting can do a lot of damage in a country as complex as South Sudan. The rate of illiteracy is above 80 per cent, we have more than 72 tribes with more than 72 local languages. Reports that are wrong can spread like wildfire in the bush.”
Added McDonald: “The journalists we are working with are quite young and they’re going to be the next generation of media leaders in South Sudan. Seeing them develop and following up with them week after week, month after month, the goal is we will see long-term effects. Hopefully 10 to 15 years from now, we’ll see where they are and feel quite proud to have been able to work with them at such a young age.”
Radio is “king” in South Sudan — far and away the primary source of information in a country with little electricity and few TVs. Much of the work done by JHR alumni ends up on South Sudan’s Catholic Radio Network. On any given day, that can range from eight to a dozen radio signals throughout the country, depending on whether there is enough fuel available to run the generators.
The Canadian effort is a pilot program for now, underwritten in part by the United Nations Democracy Fund. But all signs suggest Ottawa will soon get involved in helping enlarge JHR’s program in South Sudan, regardless of who wins the upcoming federal election.
“We have approval at a ministerial level and now are negotiating with the Canadian government to scale the project for greater lasting impact,” JHR Executive Director Rachel Pulfer told The Toronto Star.
“The journalist training is great. But the missing piece is to make a greater effort that includes letting us focus on stabilizing the relationship between government and media and open up space for quality journalism to thrive.”
Getting the South Sudanese government to support a more formalized media landscape — including, possibly, the creation of a South Sudanese Press Council — may prove a significantly taller order.
But as Pulfer points out, JHR has been scrupulously transparent since its arrival in Juba, keeping government informed of its activities throughout. And though harassment of journalists by security forces is commonplace, not a single reporter who has undergone JHR training thus far has been touched.
“In Liberia, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Sierra Leone, Ghana, Malawi and now in South Sudan, we’ve learned, drawing lessons from what we get right and what we get wrong and applying it in a radically grassroots approach to development,” said Pulfer.
“One of those lessons is to work with stakeholders and ensure everyone has a clear understanding of what we’re doing. Another is that when we give training to journalists, it provides a line of defence for them. They have not been harassed. They take a stamp of protection from our sponsorship.”