Latest News
Pressing for 'power to the people'
By [unknown placeholder $article.art_field1$]
Feb 5, 2011 - 8:14:31 AM

Pressing for 'power to the people'


As south Sudan gears up for full independence, journalists are eager to escape the heavy hand of censorship in Khartoum. One way to do that? They've fired up the region's first printing press, Peter Martell reports.


The French-made machine produced magazines and books in Belgium for over a decade, but now relocated to Juba, south Sudan's first printing press is carrying the hopes of the world's most likely new nation-to-be.

As wheels clank and engines pound, a long line of newspapers moves down a shuddering conveyor belt -- some of the first to have ever been printed in the southern Sudanese capital.

"We have to prepare this land to become a real nation with media power," said Nhial Bol, editor of The Citizen newspaper, an English language daily.

As the south gears up for expected full independence following January's landmark referendum, excitement is rising in the southern capital Juba at the challenge of becoming a country of its own.

The vote was the centrepiece of a 2005 peace deal that ended a devastating 22-year civil war between the Khartoum government and southern rebels.

"We must be ready to be our own country, that will stand on its own two feet," said Bol, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the southern flag, once the image of the former rebel army.

But the printing press was also needed, he argued, to circumvent strict censorship in the north of Sudan, where previously southern newspapers had to be printed.

In Khartoum, intelligence services have a grim reputation for visiting opposition and independent papers to demand that articles be removed, with several journalists arrested and held in harsh prison conditions.

"There was a lot of censorship in the north, because they would restrict what we would want to say," Bol added.

"That is why we want to start with this facility."

Sudan is ranked 172 out of 178 countries in media watchdog Reporters Without Borders' annual press freedom index, a low rating earned mainly from the restrictions imposed by the north.

Before the press began operations, those tough censorship rules forced Bol to shift printing to the neighbouring Ugandan capital Kampala.

However, although efficient, having the papers delivered by air made the option too costly.

"It is easy to print in Kampala, and instead of being here late at night working, I could be sleeping or drinking in a bar," said Bol, whose marathon working day includes writing, editing and overseeing printing operations.

"But I thought the only way to empower our people is to have a printing press."

Technicians work late into the night, preparing metal plates for each page.

"I worked for more than 16 years in printing presses in northern Sudan but I came back to save my country," said operator and mechanic William Along James, who returned south after working at an Arabic daily newspaper in Khartoum.

"Even though what I am getting in money is not what I got in Khartoum, I feel proud, because there is a progress -- this is the first printing press in southern Sudan."

The press printed its first paper on Jan. 9, the first day of the week-long voting in the south's independence referendum.

The second-hand press was not cheap: It cost $400,000 U.S. to buy and ship it from Europe.

"We brought it by boat in six big containers to Kenya, and then by truck to Juba," said Bol, admiring the 40-metre long machine.

"It is a 1997 model, which in Africa is one of the best standards."

He also had to build a giant warehouse for the press, dwarfing the thatch-hut newsroom for the journalists next door.

Once initial technical problems are solved -- the press needs its own electric generator due to unreliable power supplies, while Bol is searching for computer cable replacements for the press that are no longer manufactured -- he hopes to open it up to other Juba-based papers.

"We are going to encourage other media houses to print here at the minimum cost, because the intention is not to make money," Bol said. "The intention is to give power to the people."

Although the machine can produce up to 12,000 copies a day, current circulation only tops 4,000 due to difficulties in delivery and a limited market in a region where literacy rates are some of the lowest in the world.

Southerners are happy the press has removed the need to have their media passed by security official and censors in the north.

But activists warn that despite the advancements in south Sudan's press freedom in recent years, more must be done to protect it in the future, including ratifying a southern media law, a draft of which has long been awaiting parliamentary approval.

"If the media law is not passed, and then of course implemented, I think the situation of the media may deteriorate in the south," said David De Dau, director of the Agency for Independent Media, a freedom of expression campaign group in Juba.

For now, however, such concerns are eclipsed by high optimism following the referendum, and journalists at the Citizen wait eagerly to print the headline: "South Sudan is independent."

© Copyright by