Fighting for justice with words, ‘rather than with the barrel of a gun’

November 9, 2012
Calgary Herald
Valerie Fortney

Like so many others, Mading Ngor watched Tuesday’s U.S. presidential election into the late evening hours.

“What can I tell you, I’m a political junkie,” the 29-year-old says with a laugh. “I love to watch democracy and freedom in action.”

While words like democracy and freedom have been bandied about so much lately they’re almost hackneyed, they become new again through the lens of this courageous young journalist.

That’s because for the past year and a half, the Canadian-educated host of South Sudan’s most popular radio show has plied his craft despite government threats and intimidation, words manifested into action earlier this year when he was thrown out of that country’s parliament and roughed up by security guards.

“My allegiance is to the country of South Sudan, not the government,” says the host of Wake Up Juba!, a hard-hitting morning program that takes on the various issues facing that country that rose from a civil war in which more than two million lives were lost. “My approach to journalism is nation-building — I want to be an honest witness to history.”

While exercising his freedom of speech has gotten Ngor into hot water in one of the most violence- and poverty-plagued corners of the planet, it’s also earned him accolades in the country that provided him sanctuary when he was a 13-year-old resident of a Kenyan refugee camp.

Last week, Victoria’s Royal Roads University honoured him with its fall 2012 Alumni Excellence Award. Ngor received his bachelor in communications there in 2010, after completing a diploma in journalism at Edmonton’s Grant MacEwan College.

On Saturday, Calgarians can hear about his incredible life at a free lecture at Shaganappi Public Library entitled “An Expatriate View of South Sudan: A conversation with journalist Mading Ngor” (3415 8th Ave. S.W., starting at 3 p.m.).

“Canada is where I learned the importance of exercising your freedom of speech,” says the endearingly humble, yet intensely focused journalist who also writes for Reuters and The Huffington Post. “I came here to better myself and go back when I could contribute.”

One could hardly blame Ngor if he had chosen to stay put in his adopted home. The two-generations-long civil war between Sudan’s south and north, which ended last year with the south’s independence, was a constant fixture of his early childhood; when he was eight, a tribal split among South Sudanese rebels resulted in clashes that killed several of his relatives, including his father and uncle. His entire village, he says, was wiped out.

“I fled a massacre on foot with my mother and siblings,” he says of what would become a year on the run. “The mothers had to put their babies in a bush so, if it cried, they would shoot into the bush where the baby was alone, rather than kill a whole family . . . my best friend died when his dog barked.”

He and his surviving family members eventually made it to a refugee camp in Kenya, the lucky ones among the millions displaced in the bloody conflict; there, he learned to live on the UN rations that barely kept him alive.

Then, in 2001, salvation came when Ngor was accepted into Canada on a visa. He finished high school in New Westminster, B.C., before moving on to college and university.
“Thousands of people died and the world didn’t know,” he says of the devastation caused by the civil war. “But I remember it all clearly — it is my responsibility to be an honest witness to history.”

Ngor’s outspokenness and reputation for grilling government officials and other guests have won him a fervent following in Juba, the town he named his show after, as well as the rest of the country. Western journalists with knowledge of South Sudan describe him as the country’s leading voice against oppression and corruption.

“I’m fighting in the studio, rather than with the barrel of a gun,” says the man who takes being called by one government official “the biggest troublemaker in town” as the ultimate compliment. “We fought for justice in the war and we’re not getting that.”

Things are heating up, though, to a level Ngor acknowledges could jeopardize not only his popular show, but also his personal safety. In the weeks before he returned to Canada for this current visit, he came under unprecedented pressure. He had waded into some recent government decisions, which included a controversial deal that would see South Sudan, a landlocked country, resume shipping its oil through Sudan.

“I wasn’t going to shy away from these important issues,” he says of the decision to, despite threats and intimidation, continue on with interviews. “They called my boss and asked him to shut down the show . . . they called me in — the message was, ‘Either you ride with us or you collide with us.’ ”

Things came to a head the weekend before he was set to fly back to Canada. An agent with South Sudan’s National Security Services — an organization infamous for the arbitrary detention, torture and sometimes killing of critics of the state — knocked on his door when he wasn’t home. “A neighbour alerted me, so I slept in my studio the last two days before I left the country.”
Ngor says he isn’t afraid of what might happen to him if he returns, well aware that reporting in a place like South Sudan comes with dangers that are only abstract concepts to most Western journalists. But the heated situation has prompted him to spend a little more time visiting Canada than he had planned.

“I’m going to take a little time to re-calibrate,” says Ngor, who currently has a colleague filling in on the show. “Losing your life as a journalist in South Sudan is always a possibility — but historical times call for historical measures.”

Lofty words indeed, but ones he has earned the right to use.