Friday, July 8, 2011
After six years, Free Press Unlimited director Leon Willems, is back in Juba, counting the differences: "A digital clock tower counts down the days towards independence on the Juba roundabout. “Free At Last” it says, in 2 days 48 hours, thirteen minutes and 12…11…10…9… the 193rd country of the UN, the Republic of South Sudan. For the Juba addict I am since 2004, it’s too much to grasp in one time. Tarmac roads even with sidewalks here and there; a garbage truck collecting garbage; construction ongoing in Juba Teaching hospital; at the ministries, civil servants buzzing with vibe; merchants speed town from the old Nile port to the new Jebel market… Wow! Development. Wow!

I first landed in Juba December 2004, just before Christmas on a reconnaissance mission with the UN with Diane de Guzman and Ayen Deng. Diane was assessing what local chiefs and civilians thought about the upcoming Comprehensive Peace Agreement. I was trying to find out what kind of capacity local government media could have that would be useful to the establishment of a UN radio project, later known as Miraya FM. Ayen was our huge Dinka lady translator and go between, now working for SPLM topdog Anne Ito.
At the time of my first visit Juba had approximately 25.000 residents, a garrison of 10.000 SAF soldiers from the north, 300 bicycles, 2 mopeds of which one was broken. The goats roamed freely among the rubble of destroyed, bombed and degraded houses. At night they rested in the deep potholes of the 2,5 kilometre long circular road which contained remnants of asphalt from the independence days of 1955; independence from the British.
Yesterday I toured town and saw the immense alterations throughout town and I must say I am impressed and also a bit emotional about the progress. For all those who landed in Juba those days, it was very difficult to believe true progress could come about. I have always been an optimist and managed to create Miraya FM, even if many said it could never be done.

And again I am counting down the clock, 10-9-8-7-6… The atmosphere is cheerful in Miraya FM, the UN radio station in Juba. The staffs are gathered in the radio to sing their version of the new national anthem of Southern Sudan. Some put their right hand on their heart, imitating true US soldiers. Recently Miraya FM has dismantled their offices in Khartoum, where many journalists were loyal to press freedom more than to their government. I am afraid of how the demise of the UN in North Sudan will affect them. North Sudan is rapidly growing to become an even more intransigent fundamentalist enclave of repression in Africa, yet another one in the Horn.

Will the separation bring more press freedom? That is unlikely in the short run. Alfred Taban is soon starting the Juba Monitor, after selling the Khartoum Monitor.  A group of editors from the bells of freedom newspaper were harassed completely by northern press censorship. They moved to Juba and start a new daily called al Masir. There are new radio initiatives from the Catholics. Hope for as diverse press landscape prevails. This morning I shook the hands of dozens of people that I have personally trained and brought to this wonderful profession of journalism. I am proud to see that so many of them have chosen journalism.

But the mood is also insecure within the press core of South Sudan. Many of the Sudanese colleagues flocked together this morning to obtain special independence press permits. People are concerned. All of them acknowledge the need for more transparency and information in South Sudan. Investigative journalism is needed into corruption allegations, fraudulent land deals, and other aspects of the nascent country including the behaviour and practices of the numerous NGO’s. Without that it is hard to see how the domestic accountability record of the Southern Sudanese Government will improve. Until now that record has been frail.
The international community, including Free Press Unlimited, contributed to the design of a transparent, modern new media law. But when the draft law came back from parliament it was mutilated, especially cutting out the segments referencing the right to access of information for citizens. Will the Southern Security apparatus stifle Press Freedom similar to the gruesome North Sudanese?  Lets hope it will stay better than the north."


Leon Willems, 8 July 2011