By Rita Payne
Emmanuel Jal, peace activist, musician and former Sudanese child soldier, brought the reality of conflict to the conference hall at the start of the 2012 Rotary World Symposium in Bangkok. Emmanuel, who was born in 1980 in southern Sudan, spoke graphically about how he came to be recruited as a child soldier.
He was just seven years old when civil war broke out. His mother was killed by government soldiers and his father joined the rebels. Emmanuel, along with thousands of other abandoned children, fled to Ethiopia. They ended up becoming child soldiers with a consuming hatred of Muslims and Arabs who were responsible for atrocities against their families.
Recounting his story to a packed room of Rotarians and others attending the symposium, Emmanuel described how, as young boys, they fled into the bush to escape the intense fighting and many died of starvation. He was one of the few to survive. He recalled a time when he was so hungry he was even tempted to eat the rotting flesh of his comrade who had died next to him.
After a three-month trek, Emmanuel was rescued by a British aid worker, Emma McCune, who went on to help him get an education. Emmanuel was broken-hearted when Emma, his savior and mentor, was killed in a motor accident. Two of her friends helped him to move to Kenya where he completed his education and was drawn into peace work.
Emmanuel’s presentation set the framework for the panel discussion that followed on media and communication. I was moderator and speaker, and on the panel with me were Ali Eshraghi, an Iranian journalist, and Conor Fortune, a news writer with Amnesty International. Both Ali and Conor are Rotary Peace Fellows. Speaking from personal experience, Ali warned of the danger of journalists becoming activists:
“In Iran, we were hopeful about winning democracy. I realized we journalists were part of the story, became part of the conflict. We used to call ourselves reformist newspapers, which reflected bias against an authoritarian government; our line and vocabulary were not neutral. We were trying to defeat the other side.”
Ali said one of the biggest challenges was to convince Middle East colleagues about the need to be neutral. “We should be aware that we are biased people. This is not restricted to developing countries. Iran has an old tradition of journalism,” he said. On Iran’s nuclear program, Ali said he thought much of the news was biased. He said many journalists did not bother to check both sides of the story, to scrutinize facts or intelligence. In Ali’s view, much information was fed by intelligence agents and journalists were too lazy to question. He stated: “When western journalists travel to Iran, they will meet people with whom they share opinions. A lot of the news which emerged from Iran did not give a sense of the whole story.”
Conor Fortune saw himself as bridging the gap between journalists and NGOs. He noted a top-down change as media organizations were affected by budget cuts and the pressure of 24-hour news. He said there was more collaboration these days between the media and NGOs, which had the funds to fly journalists out to conflict zones. He cited several joint ventures which had won major media awards.
He referred to his own work on a campaign to ban cluster bombs. He took journalists to Laos, a country which has suffered most from the impact of cluster bombs; he was proud of his role in bringing the story to the attention of the world. He gave other instances of collaborations in South Sudan and Syria. This led to concern being expressed from the floor about the blurring of boundaries between PR work, NGOs, and journalism.