Sudan, like too many other places in Africa, fades in and out of the sights of Western journalists and their readers. Many foreign observers and aid workers have been harassed, forced out, and even killed. It is one of those places that is tempting to write-off. And, if you wanted to make a case that it was beyond help, very few people would step forward to challenge you. My latest interview is with one of those people. American Ryan Boyette traveled to Sudan with an NGO in 2003, married a Nuban woman, and stayed there even when war forced his employer and most other foreigners out. A key initiative for Ryan has been building and running Nuba Reports – a media platform that will allow the people in the Nuba Mountains to chronicle and share their own stories with world. Ryan will be recognized for this work at the 2014 Human Rights First Award Dinner in New York City on October 22nd. I spoke to him about the conflict and the challenges he faces in building a modern media organization from the ground up in one of the least developed places on earth. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @RyanBoyette.
John Little: The planet is dotted with wars both large and small right now. What is it about the conflict in Sudan that captured your attention and what do people need to understand about what is happening in the Nuba Mountains?
Ryan Boyette: In late 2002 I read a three paragraph article in a magazine. The article was about war in Sudan and persecution of Christians in the region with one of the paragraphs dedicated to a little bit of context. I found it strange that I had never heard of this conflict. So I started to do a little research and my wonder turned into frustration as I learned how long the Sudan conflict has been going on and how little information and media reports there are on this situation.
I thought to myself why is no one doing anything about what is happening there? Why was the U.S. not doing anything? As I continued to research I started to put the questions back to myself. Why was I willing to get frustrated and point the finger but not willing to go myself to see if there is anything I can do? I began to pray about it as I am a Christian and my faith is a big part of my decision making in my life. After about a month I decided that I needed to go and see where I can help. I first traveled to Sudan with the organization Samaritan’s Purse. I had worked construction to pay my way through college so I was originally hired to work with people on the ground to help construct a small hospital on the ground. I landed in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan on April 27, 2003.
I believe that African conflicts in general do not get much attention in the West and when they do it is always associated with some western point of view or simplification. The Sudan conflict is is no different. In the media, Sudan is usually edited down to a few paragraphs which allows no clear explanation of what is really going on. But as fighting goes on in Syria, Gaza, Iraq there are all kinds of graphics and in-depth reports that illustrate who is who and the history of the conflict. What caught my interest about Sudan is that the people here have enough issues without conflict but despite their issues and despite that they are fighting a war, they remain resilient while they are ignored by the international community. It is that resilience and my convictions that pulled me to Sudan.
John Little: When this conflict started most of the NGOs and reporters pulled out. You stayed and launched Nuba Reports with the assistance of 14 Nubans. How is the project progressing and what are you learning about building a grassroots media organization in a hostile environment?
Ryan Boyette: We started Nuba Reports because we saw a gap. We knew from the last conflict that no one would be reporting from this region and that is what we can contribute: Credible news and video reports from the region. We decided to focus on video because I realize that verifying information in a very remote war zone is difficult so I thought video would help in that verification process and so far it has.
It was a process to start and build up the team. We had nothing to begin with. We didn’t have a single dollar and everyone, including my self, volunteered for the first year. Everything was uncertain with the front lines changing and constant bombing. A Slovenian organization called HOPE gave us some small point and shoot cameras and the team would get low quality pictures and short video clips. But it was with that beginning that we got the attention of a lot of different international media agencies. We facilitated a lot of those agencies to come the the region and report on what was happening. We built a name for ourselves and decided to do some crowd funding in which we managed to raise $45,000. We used the money to purchase some better equipment and get some training on journalism and very basic videography.
Three years later our senior reporters have had three different trainings on photography and video. Two different trainings on journalism and character based stories. Our team is using state of the art DSLR cameras with GPS tagged footage and photos to tell in depth video reports on what is happening in the region.
This process has taught my team and I that reporting from remote areas of conflict is not only difficult and dangerous but it take a special team to get the job done. Every member on the team must have a passion for this kind of work and must believe that fact, truth, images and real life stories of the people affected, are powerful within Sudan and for our society as a whole. Also,in environments where one side does not respect the media, and does everything it can to limit the reach of the media, it is extremely difficult to tell both sides of the story. While it is imperative to remain unbiased while reporting, I must say it is difficult when your house is bombed, when your website is hacked, and when your employees are threatened. But as I said, it takes a special team to do this and to see the importance of stating the truth. We focus on the affected in the conflict and tell their stories.
John Little: Infrastructure capable of supporting digital journalism has to be a challenge. How do you work around that limitation? What kind of equipment are you using in the field and do you need more of it?
Ryan Boyette: Logistics, equipment and infrastructure are our biggest practical challenges. Just getting to the region is extremely expensive. Now our team uses pricey DSLR cameras to get good quality video but these cameras are constantly breaking. The team members have motor bikes that have been running for three years and in a war zone that is a long time. For security reason we are always changing locations so setting up a stable office or base of operations is difficult. These are just some of our daily challenges. The good thing is our team of reporters are from the region and I have lived and work in Nuba for 11 years. So we have learned to be innovative with what we have.
That is not to say that we don’t need help. We need to get new equipment that has been damaged and destroyed by the harsh environment because no matter how innovative we are, if the camera breaks then it is done. If a motor bike breaks down and we need the funds to get spare parts and if we don’t have them then we can’t reach the areas where the news is happening. We can always use help. If someone would like to donate they can do it on our website here.
John Little: Is growing your network of reporters an immediate priority or does it eventually become too challenging from a logistical standpoint?
Ryan Boyette: Our team started our work in South Kordofan State of Sudan when the war started. South Kordofan or Nuba is where we are the most established and that is were most of our reports come from. But the war in Sudan is also in Blue Nile State and Darfur. On top of the armed conflict there are protests a few times every year in the capital of Khartoum as well as other cities in the north. This is a nation-wide problem and even though it is a great logistical challenge we feel that it is imperative that we expand our operations to report issues of Sudan in a holistic way because many of the issues have the same roots.
John Little: Is empowering Nubans to lead their own communication efforts a central goal?
Ryan Boyette: Generally speaking journalism in Sudan is very poor. Most of what you see in Sudanese news is opinion, rumor and unconfirmed. On top of that there is very little video being used to present the news. Sudanese TV news reports are filled with talking heads giving opinion and primarily the opinion of the government.
Our journalists started out “Citizen Journalists” but after a lot of training, practicing, shadowing international media, and with new state of the art equipment our guys have become professional journalists. There is always room for improvement and that is what we teach. Therefore, it is a central goal of Nuba Reports to contribute to a new approach and style to reporting the news and media in Sudan. I believe the people working with us now will be considered the founders of this new style in Sudan.
John Little: Have your media efforts produced any tangible results? Has the situation on the ground been impacted in any way since you launched Nuba Reports?
Ryan Boyette: It is very hard to measure the tangible results of our program but one of the most recent tangible results that we did see was at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) meeting in Geneva. Last year the HRC decided to send a independent expert to Sudan to evaluate Human Rights issues to see if they are improving. The government of Sudan would not allow the expert to travel to the war affected areas and was only allowed to report on what the government showed him. Just two weeks ago the expert presented his findings to the council in Geneva with a Sudan delegation present.
Since the expert was not able to go to the areas affected by war we did a video and written report about Human Rights violations in Sudan’s war zones. The report used our data and findings of the past three years but focused on this past year. We reported on indiscriminate aerial bombardment, torture, arbitrary arrests and collective punishment. The video was viewed by many member states including Sudan and several attendees notified us after the meeting that our video helped to not only re-establish the independent expert but give him a stronger mandate.
Since our reporters have increased their skills, and we have proven our ability to report from the region accurately and effectively, many major international news agencies have started using our reporting and video footage. In turn, this has opened doors to meet with different government and UN bodies that take interest in the region and share with them our reports and data from the areas of conflict.
John Little: Pushing this region forward would be challenging even if these conflicts did not exist. What are the most realistic options for securing stability and how do you hope to get to that point?
Ryan Boyette: The situation in Sudan is a nation-wide problem and not just isolated to the three states that are considered the war zones. I am a strong believer that stability in Sudan will only happen if Sudanese make it happen. I don’t believe America, the UN or the AU or any other body can do anything that will ultimately create stability in the region. I think these actors can create that type of atmosphere to allow stability to happen. But it is only the Sudanese that can make the real change. I believe the way to promote change is for all Sudanese to know what is happening in their own country.
There have been years and years of racial, ethnic, political and geographic propaganda piled up and it will take the Sudanese to start peeling off this layers to the point where they can discuss their issues openly with one another.
I believe Nuba Reports is a source of information for the international community to help them evaluate the situation and decide how promote an environment for discussion that breaks down the walls of separation in the country. But since it will only be the Sudanese who do the real breaking down of walls we share our information, photos, video, reports, and character stories with several good Sudanese media sources that have the ability to get it to the populous of Sudan – so that they freely tell the stories of Sudanese to other Sudanese.