Thursday, May 26, 2016

Connecting at Alliance for Peacebuilding conference
(Washington, DC)-Yesterday, I spoke briefly to two young men in Isfahan, Iran.
Connecting via a portal to Iran

No, the Alliance for Peacebuilding (AfP) conference I’m attending hasn’t moved out of DC. Instead, organizers linked us to our new Iranian friends via what they call a portal—a live, head-to-toe video and audio feed.

In our brief encounter, I chatted with two  young English-fluent college-age men about Iranian media. The men confirmed what I’d read-that press in Iran is restricted when discussing religion and politics, but relatively free in reporting about other issues. One man said, “We need more spaces for free expression.”

The DC to Iran portal, which is making connections across boundaries, is symbolic of the work being done here this week at AfP by the peacebuilding community. Here, there is agreement about the essential nature of these connections, and about the importance of storytelling, including peace journalism, as a peacebuilding tool.
PJ session at AfP

I spoke about PJ and distorted media narratives at a session on Tuesday. I was joined by a colleague from the American Friends Service committee, Beth Hallowell, who presented an excellent report on media and terrorism. I must admit that it was a nice change to, for once, actually “preach to the choir”—those already committed to peacebuilding.

The AfP  conference concluded today with sessions hosted at the U.S. Institute for Peace.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

To South Sudan's journalists: Respect
The 16 journalists participating in our peace journalism workshop were assigned to report stories on a reconciliation theme. They split into four groups, and produced some fine radio reports that reflect the best principles of peace and reconciliation journalism. You can listen to their four stories here.

My two weeks in Juba have flown by, and have been as much a learning experience for me as for the journalists who my partner Gloria Laker and I trained. I’ve reached the conclusion that a journalist here must be extremely committed to the profession and to the peace and reconciliation that responsible journalism can help bring about. Otherwise, no one could tolerate the indignities suffered by South Sudanese journalists: a press-restricting government; corruption in the profession; little or no training; poorly equipped journalists who don’t even have simple devices like audio recorders; politically or ethnically biased media owners and managers; extremely low pay; and threats to one’s safety. These threats are real—seven South Sudanese journalists were killed last year.

I leave Juba with a deep respect for these journalists, and a strong hope that they can use the lessons they’ve learned to provide a platform for reconciliation in South Sudan.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Voice of the Voiceless:
Good storytelling, and a good way to fly under the radar
(Juba, South Sudan)-When government officials won’t allow criticism or controversy, what’s a peace journalist to do?

Here in South Sudan, as we discussed in my workshop today, journalists may have no choice but to toe the government line, to broadcast unchallenged government statements they suspect may be false, or to suppress stories they know would anger government officials. Failure to please government officials could lead to jail for journalists or to serious consequences for media outlets, like having their license revoked.

The journalists at this workshop, from Juba and rural regions of South Sudan, helped me realize that some measure of peace journalism is possible even in places where press are not entirely free. This can occur when journalists report lower profile stories about average people—the kinds of stories that aren’t as likely to attract attention from government officials. These stories, about everyday people and how policies and conflicts affect them, are just the kind of “voice of the voiceless” advocated by peace journalism. 

For example, reporting about the peace process here at the highest level (presidents, cabinet members, members of parliament) would expose a journalist to all kinds of political and sectarian pressures. Such high level reports on the peace process must fit on only one of two boxes: one pro-Kiir (the president) and anti-opposition; and the other pro-Machar (the vice president and former rebel leader) and anti-Kiir. Which version of the story that gets disseminated depends on which party/leader/ethnic group that one’s radio station represents. Balanced stories giving multiple perspectives, but especially the perspective of the rival “other,”  aren’t possible in South Sudan, the journalists said.

Rather than wade into this swamp filled with overly sensitive political crocodiles, the journalists here suggested reporting about the peace process from the bottom-up. This means interviewing peacemakers at the community level, and highlighting peace initiatives undertaken by and benefiting average South Sudanese. Peace, after all, isn’t really about the politicians and leaders anyway—it’s about those average people who will benefit most from the cessation of hostilities.

With the theme of reconciliation on their minds, the workshop participants came up with a list of promising story ideas. They include stories about people who have solved land or cattle disputes; about farmers who are re-starting their lives after the war; about those struggling to find jobs, especially women; about war-fueled divorces; and how regular people from different ethnic groups celebrate together.

Now, I’m  anxiously awaiting the reconciliation stories the participants produce tomorrow during  the workshop.


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Peace Journalism Workshop #1 concludes in South Sudan
The first of two peace journalism workshops at the Association for Media Development in Juba concluded yesterday. The journalists who participated were from war torn areas of South Sudan. The workshop was educational for the teacher (me) and, I hope, the participants as well.

I interviewed one of the participants about his experiences. See previous blog post for details.

Workshop #2 begins next week. Stay tuned.
Co-trainer Gloria Laker, Uganda

Friday, May 13, 2016

One Man, Two Journeys

(Juba, South Sudan-May 2016)
Mabang Kur

A POWER SHARING AGREEMENT HAS BROUGHT PEACE—AT LEAST FOR THE TIME BEING—TO WAR TORN SOUTH SUDAN. FORMER REBEL LEADER RIEK MACHAR HAS BEEN SWORN IN AS VICE PRESIDENT AND WILL SHARE POWER ALONG WITH PRESIDENT SALVA KIIR. THE POWER SHARING ARRANGEMENT IS SPARKING HOPES OF A SUCCESSFUL UNITY GOVERNMENT AND AN END TO THE VIOLENCE... WHICH HAS, ACCORDING TO UN STATISTICS, DISPLACED TWO MILLION, CREATED FOOD INSECURITY FOR 5.3 MILLION MORE, AND CLAIMED UP TO 50-THOUSAND LIVES.

AS SOUTH SUDANESE PONDER WHAT PEACE MIGHT MEAN, THEY ARE ALSO CONSIDERING IF RECONCILIATION IS EVEN POSSIBLE HERE. REPORTER STEVEN YOUNGBLOOD SPOKE WITH ONE SOUTH SUDANESE SURVIVOR—AND OPTIMIST.


In the meantime, our Peace Journalism Seminar at the Association for Media Development in Juba concluded today. The seminar went well--good, lively, engaged participants. I'll post photos and more from the workshop soon.