25 Sep 2018

 

Women Journalists And Perils Of Reporting In South Sudan

“‘If my phone is off, I’m in trouble, get help’…South Sudan where the government is more afraid of a camera than a gun.”

 By SALLY ARMSTRONG*

(Special to the Star)

“Canadian program helps women in South Sudan report on news amid political threats and a civil war”.
 
Sun., April 1, 2018
JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN—Anna Nimiriano was at her desk when the goons came to take her away. She could see them, standing in the 42-degree heat of the noon-day sun outside her cubicle where she works as editor-in-chief of the Juba Monitor, beckoning her with their hands:
 
“You will come with us now. The mayor is angry about a column in your paper today. He told us to bring you to him.”
 
Just imagine two thugs walking into a Toronto newspaper and saying, “Come with us. John Tory is angry about your column.” But this isn’t Toronto. This is South Sudan where such a visit can lead to a shutdown of your newspaper or prison or being disappeared.
 
Nimiriano is one of 75 women journalists and the only manager in a country that is in the midst of civil war. This is a place where women are treated as second-class citizens and expected to walk behind their husbands and keep their opinions to themselves, where the president allows a so-called free press as long as they don’t mention politics or security issues, and where the government is more afraid of a camera than a gun.
 
And it’s where an innovative program for women journalists is being conducted by Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), a Canadian media development organization that aims to teach non-biased reporting and to keep journalists like Nimiriano out of jail. In the capital city of Juba, 24 print, radio and TV journalists recently gathered for a workshop designed exclusively for women and focused not only on improving journalism skills, but on the rights of women and the danger to reporters.
 
Nimiriano who had spent the previous two days at the course, waved off the thugs, and told them she was busy in a meeting and would see them later. The dismissal worked for a short time. They continued to pace outside the newspaper office — a collection of windowless cubicles on cement slabs, surrounded by barbed wire and secured by a locked gate and guards.
 
She was not surprised the guards let the men in: “They always do,” she says. “Everyone is afraid when people like this come for them.”
 
Nimiriano had a strategy, but she needed to buy some time. First, she called the South Sudan Media Authority, an organization that acts as a regulatory body between the government and journalists. She then planned to reread and fact-check the published column in question, which was about men in the mayor’s office demanding money from residents for picking up garbage.
 
She was still activating her plan when the goons finally barged into her office, towering over the diminutive editor: “The mayor told us not to come back without you.”
 
The clock had run out. “I will come,” she said, “but not with you. My driver will bring me in my own car.”
She then scribbled her mobile number on a piece of paper, handed it to a woman she had been meeting with and said, “Call this number every 10 minutes. If my phone is off, I’m in trouble, get help.”
 
A harrowing meeting with the mayor and his henchmen followed, a meeting that included accusations and threats. Nimiriano confronted the mayor with the facts, offering to go with him to the site in question so that he could see the heaped-up garbage and assess the health risk himself, as well as question the residents about who was asking them for money. Eventually, the issue was resolved.
 
Later, Nimiriano shrugged off her incident with surprising sang-froid: “I knew what to do.”
This is the delicate dance journalists must perform in order to get the facts out to the 12 million citizens of South Sudan, a country with a Christian majority that won its independence from the Muslim north in a 2011 referendum. The split did not reap the benefits everyone originally hoped for.
An internecine quarrel between the two leading tribes — the Dinka and the Nuer — turned into a bloodbath, and a civil war has since enveloped the country. President Salva Kiir’s office has been blamed for endemic violence and mass atrocities.
 
The infrastructure is in ruins, an economic crisis is burgeoning, the value of the currency is decreasing (it takes a six-inch stack of bills to pay for lunch for eight), significant oil reserves are hopelessly mismanaged, teachers and police aren’t being paid, doctors don’t turn up for work and one million people are at risk of starvation.
 
For journalists who need to be wary about what they say, that’s a lot to report on.
Media training is lacking in many developing countries where journalism is delivered in rants and one-sided reports that don’t substantiate the facts. It’s that sort of reporting Journalists for Human Rights wants to eliminate.
 
So far, most of the media training has been for men. The emphasis at the recent JHR workshop here, funded by Global Affairs Canada, was on women journalists: getting the story, getting it right and getting it published. A story about rape as a weapon of war or a feature about the status of women needs to be told accurately but cautiously or else the government will step in with sanctions or arrest warrants.
 
“This workshop takes the fear from me,” said participant Sarah Andrew, a presenter on South Sudan TV’s Women’s Forum. “We are united here. We don’t have tribalism, different languages or cultures. We are South Sudanese, and when we are together like this we don’t have war, we share ideas, we learn from each other. Nobody says, ‘Be quiet, your idea is no good.’ We encourage each other. This workshop makes us aware of the value of our colleagues.”
 
When Andrew programs her show, she’s cautious about including anything that accuses or exposes the government. In the workshop, she learned ways to approach a story without attracting sanctions. For example, if she were to discuss early marriage, she would begin by exploring how it began and why it has been useful before launching into reasons why it must be stopped. But as for discussing rape and the fact that it takes place at military checkpoints, well, that is a topic she wouldn’t dare touch.
 
Irene Ayaa, a gender specialist for JHR, emphasized the need for the work the women do together. “Women are supposed to stay indoors in this culture. They have no say in anything. And they’re used as a weapon of war — if you want to punish a man, you rape his wife.
 
What’s more, when a husband dies, a wife cannot inherit the land. His family takes the land and she is expected to marry his brother.” She recalled a female radio journalist who reported on the need for equal rights; when she left the station, men were waiting for her.
 
They beat her up, saying, “You are spoiling my wife with this talk.” And even though this country broke away from Sudan to escape Sharia Law, many men here in this mostly Christian South Sudan have second and third wives.
 
The workshop’s eager participants spoke of these issues — of how hard it is to report balanced stories, about death threats and colleagues quitting because their lives are in danger — with stunning clarity. They said even women in positions of leadership are guarded: if you ask them for an interview about honour killings, for example, the reply will be, “I’m not the person to talk to about that.”
 
 
There is fear. But these women journalists are determined to be the change-makers, and they do so
in the face of extraordinary challenges.
 
Nimiriano, who is planning to hire a female columnist and add two women journalists to her team of seven reporters, described what happened when her newspaper published an incorrect photo of a general. Men arrived at her office and threatened, “We will take you to a place where you won’t know yourself” — meaning they would kill her.
 
On another occasion, one of her reporters wrote a story criticizing the finance minister for alleged corruption. Nimiriano fact-checked the story before it was published and discovered it wasn’t accurate. She told the reporter to correct it, but he turned on her, accusing her of being the minister’s mistress and adding what is an oft-heard threat, “I will do something to you so you don’t know yourself.”
 
It’s the telling, the sharing, all while learning how to write better leads and conduct better interviews that makes this workshop effective. Lily Batali, the newly appointed editor of The Voice of Women Magazine who has been accused of being pro-government and has been jailed by the government, insisted, “It’s important to have a free press so people know what’s going on with both sides — the government and the rebels.”
 
Radio reporter Maria Michael said the workshops she attended in the past included men who wouldn’t allow the women to speak. She said she learned more in two days than ever before and she hoped for more and longer sessions in future.
 
There was another conversation taking place away from the classroom; behind closed doors and in hushed tones. “No one is safe. They can come to your house at night, take what you have, kill you. We don’t even know for sure who they are.”
 
Like others who spoke anonymously, she whispered: “The men are going to the bush” — code for the renewed fighting that is likely coming.
 
The task for the women journalists is huge: to alter the status of women as well as the course of the civil war with their reporting. But they live with daily uncertainty and the chilling risk that they could be sent to a place where they won’t know themselves.
 
*Sally Armstrong, a journalist who covers conflict zones from the point of view of what happens to women, was with Journalists for Human Rights in South Sudan as a volunteer media instructor. She was recently named an Officer of the Order of Canada for her work.
 
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