One on one
Journalism and human rights go hand in hand, and in 2002, this became a reality when Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) was founded in Canada. JHR is one of the leading media development organizations in the country, and has played a role in helping set up independent media outlets in various Sub-Saharan African countries over the years.
JHR works with journalism organizations in Africa, teaching local journalists the ropes of the trade in ethical and effective human rights reporting.
The U of R established a JHR chapter in Regina, and this past summer, journalism student, Noah Wernikowski, had the opportunity to travel to Ghana with JHR. Wernikowski shared his stories, experiences, and words of wisdom with the Carillon.
Carillon: Why did you decide to go into journalism?
Wernikowski: At first, I was drawn to journalism because I thought it was the most marketable way to pursue my love of reading and writing and I also really liked Hunter S. Thompson – at the time, I naively thought all journalists lived rockstar, gonzo lives. The more I learned about journalism, the more my motivation changed. It became less about what I enjoyed doing and more about a sense of purpose and a sense social responsibility.
Carillon: What motivated you to join JHR?
Wernikowski: In my first semester at J-school, I joined our local chapter because I thought it would be a good way to learn more about international journalism as well as network with journalism students across the country. I stayed with JHR because I realized it was a responsible organization that strives to eliminate the need for itself while also respecting local knowledge systems. I think many other development organizations could learn a thing or two from them.
Carillon: Tell us a little about what you did throughout your internship.
Wernikowski: The internship experience was diverse and intense … I spent the majority of my time in Africa living in Accra, the capital city of Ghana. I was in Accra for just over three months. I rented a house in a middle-class Ghanaian neighbourhood, and lived with two other interns who were also working for JHR but were doing different internship projects. It was a pretty nice place, but once I got home I definitely didn’t miss the rolling blackouts, ant infestation, and spotty electricity.
For JHR, I had two jobs. I worked four days a week at local media outlet: a radio station that also ran a weekly newspaper. [The other days I spent] training [and doing workshops], but also learning from Ghanaian journalists. I did a fair bit of copy editing, story researching and vetting. In the remainder of my time, I had to blog for JHR and the Toronto Star, writing human rights-based news stories.
Carillon: A part of the JHR mandate is to "make everyone in the world fully aware of their rights." What were some of the things that you did over your internship that helped accomplish that mandate?
Wernikowski: Working at the local media outlet, I did my best to show local journalists the importance of reporting human-rights based stories as well as help them create them. I also did a little bit of rights-awareness journalism in the projects I completed while I was there. The JHR mandate really is an important end to work towards because education is an effective way to ensure rights are respected – if people know what their rights are, they know when they are being infringed upon, and they are more likely to fight such injustice.
"Some part of me was disappointed I wasn’t saving lives or getting stories published in the New York Times. However, it later became clear the experience was as much about what I took out of it as what I left behind." – Noah Wernikowski
Carillon: What was one of the most difficult things you faced in the internship?
Wernikowski: Each step of the internship brought with it a different set of challenges. At first I had to get used to the much more austere living conditions – no heated water, no washing machines, 35 degree heat, frequent blackouts, etc. After that became normal, my health became a challenge – I was constantly sick because my body wasn’t used to the climate.
There were certainly a few physical “low points.” I once left work feeling nauseous and spent the next 45 minutes fighting the urge to throw up for a 45 minute bumpy and stinky trotro ride (decrepit mini-vans spliced into buses that are the primary form of public transportation), only to get out of the trotro, walk ten steps, and throw up all over myself. For five violent minutes. Standing in the middle of a street. In front of a crowd of uniformed children.
I also got malaria twice, which also wasn’t fun.
There are very real and very deep cultural differences. It was a very selectively conservative society, not dissimilar from Madmen era North America. Where homophobia is rampant, so is polygamy. Cultural differences like these bothered me on a very personal level.
It was [also] a difficult environment to do journalism. There is a lot of bureaucratic red tape you run into whenever you are dealing with the government; there is a challenging language – and to a lesser degree, race – barrier, and most people show up anywhere from 15 minutes to 4 hours late to interviews.
Finally, it was also difficult being so geographically far away from my friends, family, girlfriend, and cat. It was so hard to keep in touch when the electricity and internet is spotty and the time difference is so many hours.
Carillon: Can you share with us any valuable insight, wisdom, or memory you've brought back with you from Ghana.
Wernikowski: This is a very hard question to answer definitely. I’m still very much in the process of figuring out exactly what I learned, exactly what the internship experience meant to me, and exactly how it changed me.
First, Africa is not a country, as many people seem to refer to it as. It is [a] very diverse place with 57 countries, thousands of cultures, and more than a billion people. I also found that, for better or for worse, aside from the cultural differences, people are the same everywhere.
I think my favourite memory was hitchhiking between Kumasi and Accra. The bus I was riding broke down and I was stranded with only a small backpack in the rain, and I had no idea how I was going to make it back to Accra and to work on Monday. There was a looming sense of freedom and adventure throughout the whole experience. I ended up stopping a car and hitchhiking back and, although the people driving didn’t speak much English, there was a really neat personal connection there.
Carillon: As a journalist, what did you think your role was when going to Ghana? And did that role change or did you have to change your expectations in any way?
Wernikowski: This question was actually a point of personal reflection while I was there. It doesn’t matter how much you tell yourself it is unrealistic or overly simplistic, some part of you thinks that if you are going to do international journalism in Africa you expect to be helping people, making a visible difference, and bettering the world.
The reality is that, like charity work here, the differences you make are very subtle. This took a little getting used to. Some part of me was disappointed I wasn’t saving lives or getting stories published in the New York Times. However, it later became clear the experience was as much about what I took out of it as what I left behind. The insight and compassion will be with me forever. I also like to think that I made small differences and some of the hard work I did got noticed.
To read more about Noah’s internship in Ghana, or learn more about JHR, visit the JHR blog at http://www.jhr.ca/blog/author/noah/
Photo courtesy Noah Wernikowski