When Opoka Christopher Amanjur, twenty-four, joined the Juba Post, a biweekly newspaper in South Sudan, as an editor, he went through each page of the newspaper, circling and underlining the text with a red pen. “Syntax errors, poor designing,and no story structure,” he recalled. “There were just so many mistakes.” The publisher, Charles Rehan Surur, told him, “You don’t need to tell me what’s wrong. Come and change the paper.”
The first edition of the Juba Post was published four years ago in 2005, on the same day that the longest running conflict in Africa ended. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed by the Khartoum Government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement SPLM, ended a twenty-two-year-long civil war between North Sudan and South Sudan that had taken almost two million lives. For the Christian South, long politically and economically marginalized by the Arab power brokers in the North, the CPA brought a measure of autonomy, the waiver of Sharia law, and a greater share of the oil revenue.
Conditions in the region are improving at a snail’s pace. The war that displaced four million people also ravaged the South’s landscape. All of the estimated twenty kilometers of tarred road in the region are in Juba, the capital city. And while military commanders have transitioned from the bush to more comfortable hotels and houses, most people still remain in the wilderness, entrenched in tribal rivalries, without roads, electricity, or water. Only a handful of businessmen with generators are able to work after sunset.
As the South takes baby steps towards recovery, journalists are setting higher standards of work. Amanjur, who studied journalism at Kampala University in Uganda (where he fled in 1992 to escape the war), has launched a training program through the Juba Post to teach basic reporting skills, free of charge. “The young lads were so excited that they would mix opinion with news in their stories,” he said. “The editorial board never checked this.” The program now includes reporting and writing skills, ethical reporting, news communication skills, sociology, and macroeconomics.
The Juba Post’s office is tucked between a messy settlement of conical huts and the dusty army barracks. Fortified by a few laptops and noisy table fans, the newspaper runs on the energy of its young staffers, most of whom, like Amanjur, spent their childhood in exile in Uganda and Kenya.
One trainee at the paper, Philip Atem Bier, twenty-three, studied public administration in Kampala. Bier is a good writer, but he still struggles with journalistic pieces. “Turning information from the field into a story is very difficult,” he said.
Despite the training program’s progress, money and logistics still pose daily problems. Reporters like Bier are paid by the story; only the editors are on contract. Very often, payments are delayed. “If you are not a pro-government paper, then you don’t get government advertisements,” said Surur, who has to depend on endorsements from NGOs and private companies. “We don’t have a car,” he added.
Electricity is also a modern luxury. The Post has been lucky; it currently shares the same power line as General Paulino Matiep, the second-in-command of the South’s army. Not too long ago, the paper spent a quarter of its sales on gas for the generator.
The Post faces bigger, more systemic problems, though. Media freedom in the South is controlled by the officials in North Sudan. All outlets are registered with the National Press Council in Khartoum, which also supervises a mandatory exam for reporters. (Many poorly trained applicants of the South fail the exam.) News and views supporting the International Criminal Court are squashed. (The ICC has issued an arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.)
Additionally, inspectors are assigned to keep a check on troublesome “independent” papers. Alfred Taban, the editor of the Khartoum Monitor, a national daily, dutifully leaves his office at around five in the evening and allows the inspectors to do their job. “They edit the paper for the next day,” he said, almost apathetically.
Like many southerners, Taban is waiting for North Sudan and South Sudan to split. With the international spotlight largely focused on Darfur, the north-south deal that ended the civil war and created the semi-autonomous southern authority has taken something of a backseat. But it will come to a head in 2011, when southerners will hold a referendum to decide whether to remain a part of Sudan, or to secede.
While the National Unity Government of Sudan, formed after the peace agreement, is comprised of both Northern and Southern leaders, it is President Bashir’s Islamist National Congress Party (NCP), and not the SPLM, represented by former rebels, that makes and enforces the country’s rules.