Southern Exposure

A South Sudan biweekly seeks the light

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.

Many in the South believe that they will always play second fiddle to the North, which is predominantly Arab and perceived to be prejudiced against Africans—both African Muslims in Darfur and the Southern Christians. Both these regions have been underdeveloped and marginalized since Sudan’s independence in 1956, and opinions about the impending referendum run strong. “I want to be ruled by my own black people,” said Mawadri Martin John, twenty-three, a student majoring in rural development at Juba University. “I do not want Islam in my life.”

“It is the best time to unlock ourselves from the Arabs,” said Hans Martin Aligo Abe, a member of the Southern Sudan Legislative Assembly. “We will take them head on.”
Abe has the scars from a string of civil wars in the Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi and the Congo. The sides of his ears have been sliced off, he said, by the North Sudan forces.

There is, however, concern that South Sudan in its present underdeveloped state may not be ready for the split—that it could lead to further internal clashes between Southern tribes. But for many like Abe, independence cannot wait anymore. “We have been swimming in our dirty water for very long,” he said. “We will continue to swim until things improve.”

In the midst of all this anticipation and change, the Juba Post walks an ethical tightrope. Many of its editors support the secession, what is colloquially referred to as the “divorce.” Their challenge is to keep that sentiment out of the reporting. “We try not to get carried away,” said Amanjur. “It is not our goal to lead South Sudan into independence.”

The southern press has had its share of outspoken entanglements with the national government. The Juba Post, for example, has been charged with defamation and libel for running a press release that accused a prominent southern minister of land grab. And while southerners are exempt from being tried under the North’s laws, because there are no media laws in the South, such defamation and libel cases go to Khartoum. (To boot, most judges do not know how to handle journalism cases. “It is difficult to explain to them what an editorial policy is,” said Amanjur.)

The passage of a media law in the South, however, is lower down on the priority list, according to Moi Igga, an official in South Sudan’s Information Ministry. “We are only a three year old nation. Virtually every section of society is operating without law,” he said.

It is, however, in everybody’s best interest to get the law in place. “Many of the reporters are not trained and they need guidance,” said Igga, noting that reporters do not always back charges against politicians with facts. “They have no idea about journalism ethics.”

Even so, the southern press has more freedom relative to its northern counterpart. In the North, for example, papers published outside the country are not allowed to be circulated. Also, despite the government inspections of news content, the inspectors, it is believed, don’t stomp out criticism of the southern government quite so thoroughly. And the Post, for one, carries mainly southern news, so it gets by with random checks every few days, rather than daily. Explaining why he doesn’t mind being occasionally summoned to court, Post publisher Surur said, “Sometimes real news gets through.”

With secession talk in the air, South Sudan is preparing itself for a new beginning—in part by building up a more robust press. But it is unclear how much press freedom an independent South Sudan will bring. “There will be no censorship in the South,” declared Igga. In the next breath, he added, “You are expected to write what is decent culturally and politically.”

Waiting in the wings is the dream of a journalism school in Juba City. Last year, one of the few brick and cement buildings in the city was proposed as a possible site, but the building was declared unsafe. Surur, meanwhile, is on the hunt for a “bigger and better building” for the Juba Post, pushing to get more news out through the Web, where official inspections are less frequent, and chasing after government funding for the school. “It will,” he said, “make journalism a constant force.”

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Betwa Sharma is the New York/United Nations correspondent for the Press Trust of India. She also blogs for the Huffington Post and is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in, The Hindustan Times, The Indian Express, and The Daily Beast.