Special Report: A radio jock tests freedom's limits in new nation

JUBA Thu Jul 12, 2012 9:16am BST

1 of 14. Mading Ngor broadcasts his morning radio program 'Wake up Juba' from the studio of Bakhita Radio in Juba May 28, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Adriane Ohanesian

JUBA (Reuters) - Radio journalist Mading Ngor was firing off sentences like machine gun rounds.

South Sudanese troops had occupied a disputed region across the country's border with arch foe Sudan. President Salva Kiir declared the army would not withdraw. The ruling party staged marches to prepare the people for war.

Then, a sudden change of heart: South Sudan would pull back after all. Ngor was incensed.

"It's a matter of consistency," the radioman shouted at a trio of political leaders on his popular Friday afternoon show. "You have to know what you want ... You don't deceive the people to boost their morale for nothing."

The panelists - South Sudan's deputy information minister and two veteran ruling party officials - tried in vain to calm their interviewer.

"Mading!" two shouted back. "Mading!"

In a country where most people get their news not from the Internet, newspapers or television but from the radio, Mading Ngor is about as big as journalists get. The 29-year-old is decidedly not impartial. But his brash, crusading reports and interviews on Bakhita Radio are required listening for politicians and the public alike.

As South Sudan begins to work out the role media should play in its development, the question is what to do about edgy journalists like Ngor. If the country restrains the press, it risks enabling the kind of tyranny and corruption that prevails in Sudan, its former ruler to the north.

But it isn't that simple. South Sudan is a wobbly fledgling state - born of civil war, riven by ethnic rivalries and still in conflict with its old foe. Will it dare to embrace the kind of adversarial free press that exists in the far more stable West?

Reuters is chronicling the first year in the life of South Sudan, which celebrated its independence on July 9. How far to pursue liberties such as free speech is one of the many enormous decisions facing the world's youngest nation.

Hard-hitting journalism is new here. Until a 2005 peace agreement granted it a measure of autonomy and opened the way for secession, South Sudan was ruled from Khartoum, Sudan, where journalists are subject to arbitrary arrest and intimidation. Reporters Without Borders ranks Sudan 170th out of 179 in its press freedom index.

In the years leading up to secession, a raw but vibrant media developed in Juba, South Sudan's capital. Journalists, western donors hoped, would help keep the new government honest.

South Sudan's leaders have not always agreed. In the first year of independence, the government has closed one daily newspaper and detained at least three reporters over critical coverage, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based media watchdog. CPJ has registered 14 cases where reporters were attacked or harassed, mostly by government security agents. Guards threw Ngor out of parliament in February.

These incidents often seem to be the missteps of inexperienced officials rather than systematic repression. But Reporters Without Borders, which ranks South Sudan 111th on its index, warned last week that "there has been a disturbing accumulation of incidents and isolated acts of repression or intimidation that end up undermining the climate in which journalists and media operate."

The government says it is committed to press freedom. But South Sudan's president and most of its ministers won their posts after years as military commanders in the bush. They are more used to fighting Khartoum than exposing themselves to journalistic scrutiny. Some officials think reporters should be cheerleaders for the new nation rather than critical voices.

"What is required of you is a positive kind of journalism," Aleu Ayieny Aleu, the head of parliament's security committee, told a news conference in April. That remark came after Ngor asked whether the government would close independent media in the wake of the border fighting.

Reporters, Aleu told Reuters later, should show restraint in covering sensitive topics such as fuel shortages.

"If a journalist goes and says there is no fuel all over the South" - as Ngor had reported on his radio show - "you have already influenced the military situation" by giving potential attackers vital information, he said. "We don't want to encourage them to attack us."

Even Ngor's own boss wonders whether he pushes it too far. "Sometimes he even asks should the government resign," says Albino Tokwaro, director of Bakhita Radio. "He says this very often. You cannot do this here."

WAKE UP JUBA

South Sudan's nascent newspapers and radio stations are a motley bunch. The few independent newspapers have circulations of less than 5,000. They regularly reprint government press releases, lift stories from western news agencies or run lengthy and often impenetrable editorials. Reporters tend to be young, underpaid and untrained, with a rudimentary grasp of spelling and grammar in English, the official language.

Radio reaches many more people. It is dominated by foreign outlets such as the BBC, and stations set up and financed by the United Nations or international aid groups.

Bakhita is the Juba-based link in a network of Catholic radio stations and gets its money from the Catholic Church of South Sudan, which itself receives some funding from the Vatican. Bakhita also carries advertisements. Opened in 2006, it began by covering social and religious topics. Its move into news and current affairs is attracting more listeners - and Ngor is part of the reason why.

Born in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, in the country's east, Ngor fled with his mother to Kenya in 1991 after ethnic clashes in the region. "When I was running through the jungle I made myself promise not to forgive what happened," he said. "The worst was that innocent people were killed (who) nobody heard of. I want to be able to report and let the world know what happens in South Sudan."

Ngor went to school in a refugee camp in Kenya and then managed to get a visa for Canada. There he studied journalism at Grant MacEwan College and, along with a few other South Sudanese exiles, founded a news website. He moved home in April last year, three months before South Sudan became independent.

Hired by Bakhita, whose 35 staff work in a small cluster of single-storey buildings, he started two shows: "Wake Up Juba," which runs for two hours every weekday morning, and "The Republic" on Friday afternoon. With their mix of controversial topics and confrontational interviews, they quickly became the hottest shows in town.

"CALM DOWN A BIT"

In January, South Sudan turned off its oil wells, and with them more than 80 percent of the country's economy and 98 percent of government income. President Kiir said that Sudan had stolen 1.7 million barrels of oil. Khartoum said it only confiscated what it was owed in transit fees for the oil that flows through a pipeline from South Sudanese oil fields across Sudan to a terminal on the Red Sea.

After South Sudanese troops occupied a disputed field in April, Ngor asked the question that everybody wanted answered. The government line - that the shutdown would not hurt - made no sense, he told two government officials on his breakfast show.

"You can see fuel shortages all over town. How can we fight a war without fuel?" he asked Joseph Madak Both, director of policy and research in the office of the president.

"We can run this country for the next four years with this shutdown … and we will not experience any shortage in dollars," said Both.

Ngor said petrol station owners had told him that dollar shortages were already hurting the economy.

At that point, member of parliament Mary Kiden Kimbo proposed an alternate explanation for the shortages: Many of Juba's petrol stations were run by Somali immigrants, and they could be behind the problems.

"Let's not get into xenophobia," said Ngor.

After the show, Ngor's boss Tokwaro took the reporter aside and suggested that he needed "to calm down a bit". The Catholic network had received a call from the information ministry, who had complained that callers to Bakhita were airing "extreme views" on air. One caller had ridiculed the border war as a personal struggle between President Kiir and Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. This was nonsense, the ministry said.

Tokwaro, a veteran South Sudanese journalist, said that with national security officials obviously monitoring the station's programs, he wanted to protect Ngor. He explained that officials were edgy over the border conflict and were not used to being challenged. Ngor was pushing his luck.

"I was thinking we shouldn't always discuss politics, maybe agriculture, other things," Tokwaro said he had told Ngor, before sighing, as if to indicate he knew that his proposal had fallen on deaf ears.

RIPPED TROUSERS

It wasn't the first time Ngor had upset the government.

One weekday in February, after wrapping up that day's "Wake Up Juba," Ngor headed home to shower and change into a suit. After breakfast he headed to the national assembly.

Instead of sitting upstairs in the journalist gallery, though, he decided to move to the vacant back row on the floor of the house, where he could better tape proceedings. Ngor needs plenty of audio material for his morning show. He plays excerpts of parliamentary debates and press conferences before taking listeners' calls and then opening up a discussion with a panel.

A security guard approached and asked him to leave. "I told him I wanted to record motions," Ngor said.

When he had finished recording, he left the floor and was met outside by the same man and four security guards who asked him to leave the assembly. Ngor refused, and the four pushed him out, he said. "I had (my) dark blue suit on and I fell flat on my back. They grabbed each of my legs and each of my hands." In the struggle his trousers were ripped.

The ejection dominated parliament for almost a week. Various MPs spoke out against Ngor. Two press conferences and a full session were dedicated to the case. MP Joy Kwaje, head of the information committee, at first called Ngor to apologize and promise an investigation. A day later she publicly described him as a "character that is not fitting with journalism."

Aleu, the head of the security committee, asked the speaker to ban Ngor from the premises. "I knew him a long time ... Mr Mading Ngor has caused us much trouble," he told parliament a few days after the incident.

Kwaje and Aleu both now play down their comments and describe Ngor's expulsion as the result of a misunderstanding. Aleu, a veteran bush fighter with a taste for elegant suits and gold watches, said Ngor was too aggressive for a young nation building democratic institutions. "He probably looks at the problems of South Sudan through the Canadian eyes. That has been his problem."

Sitting in his large office, equipped with a fridge to serve visitors cold water, Aleu explained his own method for dealing with reporters who may be tempted to misquote officials. "Once they come to me, I tell them, 'Please, I am ready for your interview. But sign this that (says) you (will) write exactly what I told you...any deviation … and I'll sue you'."

Some journalists believe Ngor was targeted because of his reporting. But Abdalla Keri Wani, deputy editor of "The Citizen," one of South Sudan's biggest newspapers, shrugged when asked about the incident. Though it should not have happened, he said, the media enjoys far greater freedom than before independence.

"It's a total different situation now," said the 61-year old, who used to work for Sudanese state radio in Juba in the 1980s, when southern rebels surrounded the then-garrison town. Wani thinks both lawmakers and journalists need to improve the way they work, and get used to each other. "There is a lot of unprofessional behavior of journalists. Most of them have no training. They often don't know what to do," he said.

The government sometimes goes overboard. Last year, tabloid newspaper Destiny criticized President Kiir for allowing his daughter to marry an Ethiopian instead of a local man. The government responded by closing the paper. Editor Ngor Garang said security officials detained him and reporter Dengdit Ayok for two weeks, even though they were never charged.

"I keep asking for an explanation for the suspension but I get no response," he said.

The Information Ministry says Destiny can re-open once it submits the required paperwork to get a license. Garang says he has done this and heard nothing. He worries that South Sudan will copy the Khartoum model where security services often hassle the media without being accountable to anyone.

"If they just want to copy-and-paste Khartoum, what did we even fight for?" he asked.

MOTOR BIKES AND MUD

Ngor's popularity has not made him rich. He earns around 3,000 South Sudanese pounds a month ($700). That's a good salary in South Sudan but enough to afford only a basic one-bedroom apartment in Juba, one of the most expensive cities in Africa.

Unable to buy a car, he makes his way around the city on the back of "boda boda" motor-bike taxis. In the rainy season he sometimes arrives at news conferences covered in mud. Because Bakhita has no technicians to help its presenters, Ngor often works until midnight. After he is finished cutting tapes, writing scripts and working on questions, he lays out for the night on a white blanket on the floor.

"Man, on weekends I just sleep to reload," he said, enjoying a beer in an Indian restaurant one Friday night.

Once he's reloaded he starts again. "We have to hold the government accountable," he said.

(Edited by Simon Robinson and Michael Williams)