It all started with a fifteen-minute connection in Addis…

Author: Rachel Pulfer, Executive Director, Journalists for Human Rights


Constitutional Court, Johannesburg
Constitutional Court, Johannesburg

It all started with a fifteen-minute connection in Addis.

Flying Ethiopian Airways via Addis to Johannesburg with JHR trainer-turned-Brookfield Project Officer Philippa Croome in early November, I wasn’t sure we were going to make it. We had fifteen minutes to catch the flight to Johannesburg, where we were due to make a significant presentation to prospective partners at Witswatersrand University the following day. (Sharpening my concern: memories of the last time I’d flown Ethiopian. We’d landed in the wrong Congo. The airport was in lockdown, and the airplane sat on the tarmac for five hours, while M. Le President departed in his Dreamliner.)

Happily, today’s Ethiopian Airways includes the option of being bussed from plane to plane. We made the connection in style – and that set the tone for the rest of the trip.

JHR co-founder and chair emeritus Ben Peterson showed up that evening, and the following morning it was off to network like crazy at the African Media Leaders Forum.

The conference began on an inauspicious note: to none of our party’s great surprise, South African President Jacob Zuma did not materialize. However, his delegate, Jeff Radebe, calmly assured all present that “never again would media be harassed in South Africa” – a statement promptly and gleefully tweeted by Esmare Weideman, chief executive officer of Media24, which sponsored the conference.

A keynote by the president of Mauritius, scientist-turned-politician Dr. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, inspired the crowd with stories of the value of working with youth in particular, pointing out that by age 23, Isaac Newton had made three of the greatest discoveries in science. Her key themes: how best to ensure African media tells the stories of the ongoing African renaissance, and how best to ensure African journalists are properly paid for that work. (Since 2010, African economies have recorded 5% growth year-over-year. African media has been racing to keep up.)

The conference also featured inspiring presentations on topics ranging from launching a TV network via mobile phones to using tech to verify medicines. And it was wonderful to see so many former and current JHR partners – from Ghana’s Joy FM to Liberia’s FrontPageAfrica to DRC’s Le Potentiel – represented in the first pan-African media awards ceremony.

JHR’s team networked and pitched, and the results included commitment from both Wits’ Digital Innovation Zone, led by the extraordinary Barry Dwotlatsky, anti-apartheid activist turned software engineer, and Anton Harber, founding editor of South Africa’s Mail and Guardian newspaper and Chair of Wits’ School of Journalism, to help build out a new media entrepreneurship lab at Witswatersrand. Also on the cards: a new and promising relationship with the head of the Aga Khan School of Journalism in Nairobi, Michael Meyer.

We left Johannesburg on a high: it is not every day you get to kick off a partnership with the university that graduated Nelson Mandela.

From Jo’burg it was off to Nairobi. We met with Roshan Paul, founder of the Amani Institute, an incredible new program based in Nairobi and Sao Paulo that aims to educate social entrepreneurs on how to build initiatives designed to catalyse positive social change. We also checked in on the Aga Khan School to get a sense of its scope.

I then bid a fond farewell to Philippa and Ben, and boarded the two-hour flight to Juba, South Sudan, on a site visit to JHR’s latest post-conflict project.

The flight was pleasant, but I was nervous. It wasn’t clear what awaited me in Juba. The transitional peace process had been stop-start at best. Rebel leader Riek Machar was technically due to arrive in the city later that week — with some analysts concerned his arrival would lead to a flare-up in hostilities. And reading the international media accounts about life in war-torn South Sudan, let alone the African Union’s recent report on human rights atrocities committed over the past two years, it wasn’t a stretch to think you’re flying straight to hell.

Actually arriving in Juba was rather a different story. A short walk to the terminal building evolved into a short wait for immigration, and then I was picked up by project lead David de Dau, smiling a welcome, and sporting his signature black hat.

David took me to Logali House, a hotel perched about five minutes’ drive away from the airport. A two-storey concrete building, Logali features excellent security, wide open hallways, high-ceilinged rooms with beds covered in mosquito nets, warm showers (!), lattes (!), working flushable toilets (!), decent food, reliable internet, reliable a/c, and a large bar. For those used to bucket showers and regular power outages, it was luxury.

Best of all: the back patio, a scene straight out of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, replete with hard-drinking journalists (both local and international, all deeply impressive and courageous individuals); Thesiger-quoting consultants; romance-novel-reading World Bank operatives, and old Sudan hands of all stripes, afloat with stories of mayhem, madness and reporting adventures in outer states — with the occasional genuine good news story thrown in for balance. (Despite war and famine, guinea worm, for example, has virtually been eradicated from South Sudan.) In short: I’d arrived in a messed-up, jumped-up, mostly-for-journalists version of heaven. This would be home for the next six days.

JHR star trainer Grant McDonald, whose inspired work training journalists through a war zone in the previous year in South Sudan has, deservedly, become the stuff of JHR legend, greeted David and I warmly outside. But there wasn’t a moment to lose. Within half an hour we were off on meetings with partners.

The whirl included dinner the first night with an alphabet soup of media development practitioners in South Sudan (all of whom are in some way partnered with JHR); and then on to meetings with Bakhita Radio of the Catholic Radio Network; the press union; the women’s press association;that ever-present classic of African governance, the Ministry of Information; the genial dean of the rapidly-growing school of journalism and mass communications at the University of Juba, Dr. Zaza Williams; City FM (90% Fresh Hitz/10% Clasics; audience reach allegedly 1.9 million); UNESCO’s Lydiah Gachungi and Salah Khaled; the new Equatoria Broadcasting Corporation, aka South Sudan’s answer to the BBC; and Equity Bank, to work past the current difficulty of extracting American dollars from its coffers (a scourge plaguing the entire economy).

The highlights, leastways for me, were listening to the extraordinarily courageous and competent manager of CRN’s Bakhita Radio describe how the station came back on the air after being shut down by National Security, and a refreshingly straightforward meeting with the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Information, whose office sported a Reporters Without Borders map of press freedom harassment worldwide. He acknowledged there are major problems in the relationship between security forces, government and media, and encouraged us to work with both government and security, in order to help stabilize the relationship. JHR plans to meet this challenge with specific training, designed to open up both formal and informal channels of communication between media and officialdom.

Most informative of all: the couple of hours we grabbed coffee with the Government of Canada’s superb ambassador Nick Coghlan – South Sudan’s most experienced, longest serving (and arguably most fun) foreign diplomat.

Despite the encouraging meetings, there is no question that South Sudanese media is under constant threat. Every journalist we met, whether local or international, had a story of being harassed, detained or worse by the country’s ever-jumpy National Security forces.

Most, however, had evolved an ingenious and elaborate strategy enabling them to navigate the threat — while continuing to practice their craft.

Further, efforts by UNESCO and others to address the problem have met with some success. And South Sudanese media have started to realize their own collective muscle: a country-wide media strike to protest president Salva Kiir’s call to kill journalists for reporting “against the state” succeeded in getting Kiir to retract his statement.

Amidst the shifting sands of the stop-start peace process, the country’s three media bills point the way to a robust future: they offer the legal framework for a public broadcaster, an information commissioner to take over from the ministry of information, and the launch of a media authority, empowered to enable the sector to regulate itself, rather than have government bodies do the honours. Further, South Sudan remains a healthy 16-points up from JHR’s Jordan program on the 2015 Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders … and a full 25 points up from the DR Congo, where JHR has been operating successfully since 2007. Stations that closed in the summer are back on air; the newspaper that had closed with such fanfare in September, the Citizen, is now back in operation as This Day.

Everyone that JHR met was welcoming and keen to get a scaled version of the project going in earnest, and there was particular enthusiasm for JHR’s model of working through embedding trainers in newsrooms. If the energy, courage and goodwill shown by South Sudanese partners is anything to go by, there’s enormous potential for excellent media development work, despite the intimidating atmosphere and on-again, off-again peace process. Watch this space…

Search articles

Subscribe to the JHR newsletter

Explore topics


The Democratic Republic of Congo Tunisia Pakistan Morocco South Sudan Lithuania Latvia Poland Kenya Canada Iraq Afghanistan Lebanon Mali Turkey

Your donations help fund the work we do