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JHR-Ryerson, Wits Universities Teaming Up For Journalism Lab Modeled After FrontPageAfrica

JHR-Ryerson, Wits Universities Teaming Up For Journalism Lab Modeled After FrontPageAfrica

Toronto – Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), the Canada-based international media development organization which empowers journalists to cover human rights stories objectively and effectively, is excited to collaborate with the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship and Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada to work towards launching the Journalism and Media (JAM) Lab – an accelerator/incubator which aims to harness the explosive energy of African entrepreneurship, and put it to work for journalism all over the world.

Modeled after FrontPageAfrica, Revolutionary Journalism Lab with partners Journalists for Human Rights, Wits University of South Africa and Ryerson University in Toronto aims to bolster African media entrepreneurship

At a well-attended gathering in Toronto, Canada on Tuesday, Rachel Pulfer, Executive Director for JHR said her organization was proud to work towards launching an initiative modeled after the life’s work and struggle of FrontPageAfrica’s founder and publisher, Rodney Sieh, one she hopes will inspire African entrepreneurs to expand their horizons.

Said Pulfer: “This is why Journalists for Human Rights is partnering with Wits, Ryerson and the Brookfield Institute to establish an incubator/accelerator lab for African media entrepreneurs in Rodney’s image.”

The goal, according to Pulfer, is for African entrepreneurs to access the mentorship, partnerships and funding they need to grow their ideas and develop independent sources of financing for their journalism, as FrontPageAfrica has done.

The JAM Lab is expected to revolutionize how journalism financed; stories are accessed while fostering entrepreneurship in media.

The JAM lab will incorporate the latest in entrepreneurial journalism, with input and support from the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.

It is the first collaborative project between Ryerson and the Tshimologong Digital Innovation District – Wits’ world-class innovation hub, inspired in part by Ryerson’s own DMZ.

She explained that the rationale for South Africa being chosen as the launching pad is due to the fact that the country is at the cutting edge of entrepreneurship.

“It’s a media culture full of great ideas – a real-life laboratory where new ways of doing business are being created and tested.

This is particularly the case in media, which is less burdened with the problems of legacy operations than is the case for media in North America or Western Europe,” Pulfer said.

Pulfer said organizers wanted to locate the program in a place that is radically open to new ideas in the norm of Code for Africa, which is now promoting data journalism all across the continent or the Daily Maverick, a site that pioneered online-only original content. Launched in 2009, the Maverick is now a thriving newsroom of 36 with a growing audience of over 300,000.

Pulfer said the African continent is in a powerful state of transition.

“Some call it the African Renaissance – with countries like Tanzania and Kenya experiencing year over year of 5-6% economic growth. Compare this to Canada’s relatively anemic growth rates – 1-2% in the past few years – and you start to see what we are talking about.”

The JHR boss said Africa is the future in so many ways. 

“Many say it is the continent of the future. We at JHR believe it is the continent of the present. So many young people and creative energy to empower –especially when it comes to informing people about their rights, and encouraging positive change.”

FrontPageAfrica (FPA) Editor/Publisher Rodney Sieh who was the keynote speaker at the event recalled his early struggle to get the paper up and running at a time when technology was still a challenge.

“In the age of cyberspace media, when many print newspapers are making the transition from print to online, I started FrontPageAfrica in the opposite direction – from online to print.”

The FPA boss averred that as a print newspaper, FrontPageAfrica has made its name on explosive investigative pieces that today represent the views and expression of many languishing at the bottom of the economic ladder: heart-wrenching investigative features, analysis and stories that has made FPA the newspaper of record in his homeland of Liberia.

Sieh, a former correspondent for the BBC, says his decision to return home and establish the investigative media was due to what he saw as a vacuum in the country that needed to be filled.

“After working as a journalist for several years in Liberia, I was forced to flee after reporting on the civil war. I went to The Gambia, where I worked for the BBC. 

There, I interviewed the brutal dictator, Yahyay Jammeh and reported on a series of disappearances and killings.  Jammeh’s forces then tried to arrest me, forcing me to move to the United States.”

In 2005, Sieh started FrontPageAfrica online. Two years later, the print edition in Monrovia was launched. The biggest criticism was that Sieh was in America criticizing the government. He states.

“I felt I needed to be on the ground reporting on the issues that matter.

But one of my first moves was to purchase a printing press and make sure we had control over it – this is because the government used to sabotage printing presses if the headlines did not go their way.”

The return to Liberia was filled with challenges, the FPA boss recalled. “Despite various threats early on – including an attempt to firebomb the office - we began breaking big stories.”

The model of FrontPageAfrica, after which the JHR-Ryerson-Brookfield Institute-Wits collaboration is being branded, has included powerful, compelling investigative and human rights reporting that shines a spotlight on systemic issues in Liberia, and encourages solutions that have actually improve the lives of Sieh’s fellow citizens.

By creating the space for freedom of expression through credible and important journalism, Sieh says the model has the potential to impact other countries across Africa, a point JHR Executive Director Pulfer hit home. 

“Rodney is only one individual in the African continent whose story we know. There are so many others. We want to know more. We want to scout out, identify and support people like Rodney (Sieh).

People who have created innovative ways to produce and sustain independent journalism that matters to their communities -- while fostering positive change in their lives.”

Dr. Anver Saloojee,  Assistant Vice President, International at Ryerson University told the gathering that through the School of Journalism, Ryerson International and the Brookfield Institute the partnership with the University of Witwatersrand and Journalists for Human Rights to pilot this exciting initiative will accelerate the growth of innovation in media and journalism in Africa.

“The aim is to strengthen an ecosystem where independent journalists will be given the tools and support needed to build sustainable enterprises that will improve information and communications in Africa,” Dr. Salooje stated.

He described the initiative as the first collaborative project between Ryerson and the Tshimologong Digital Innovation District – Wits’ world-class innovation hub, inspired in part by Ryerson’s own DMZ.

“The project provides an avenue for Ryerson’s School of Journalism to share it expertise globally and make a meaningful contribution towards journalism in Africa.

Ryerson journalism professor Asmaa Malik, an expert in the area of entrepreneurial journalism, is working with her colleagues at Wits to develop the curriculum for the program.”

For his part, Mr. Nyameko Goso, Consul General of South Africa to Toronto hailed the project as a major initiative for journalism in Africa.

Front Page Africa’s partnership with JHR and the US-based New Narratives and Thomson Reuters Foundation, has put a spotlight on issues affecting ordinary, Liberian citizens such as female genital cutting, rising food prices, drug trafficking, teen pregnancy and prostitution.

Sieh cited the ground-breaking efforts in hiring a large number of female journalists, including Mae Azango, who went underground to expose the criminal abuse of young boys and girls being circumcised against their will.

In 2011, the paper partnered with JHR to investigate working conditions in an iron mine in northern Liberia.

After the publication about the low wages and lack of job security for the miners – all of which was legal under Liberian law, it kicked off a furious debate in the Liberian House and Senate and led to a new minimum wage bill.

The paper’s partnership with JHR in Liberia has also shone a light on the lack of treatments, funding and policy concerning mental health issues and the stigma associated with this illness.

In August, 2013, Front Page Africa and Sieh were sued by former Agricultural Minister, Chris Toe after the publication of findings of a government-backed that found the minister responsible for of unaccounted donor funds intended to fight army worms.

Front Page Africa was shut down and Sieh was jailed - after failing to pay a US$1.5 million fine.

Sieh was sentenced to 5000 years in prison but released after a barrage of international pressure forced to government and the courts to free him from prison.

Since his release he has been actively advocating for the decriminalization of Libel which is still a criminal offence in Liberia, despite the President’s pledge a year before, in 2012, to decriminalize the offence. 

“I received a 5,000 year sentence and was sent to prison. This was a considerably longer sentence than that of the rapists and murderers with whom I was sharing a jail cell. I was in jail for approximately three months.”

Sieh said he was proud of the recognition Front Page Africa has received, including two Pulitzer Fellowships, the Committee to Protect Journalists Press Freedom Award, the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression Award, the German Development Media Prize for Africa, a Dag Hammarskjold Fellowship and his own Fisher Fellowship this past year at Massey College at the University of Toronto.

“I am fully aware of the risks I am taking in publishing Front Page Africa, but this is my life’s work, my passion and the thing I know how to do best.”

Nevertheless he lamented that even amid the struggles African journalists face, he remains puzzled by what he is seeing unfold in Canada. “Newfoundland and Labrador journalist Justin Brake is facing 10 years in prison for reporting on an Indigenous protest.

Vice News reporter, Ben Makuch, is being ordered to turn over all communications between himself and an ISIS fighter to the RCMP. I was surprised to find out that there remains criminal libel laws on the books here in Canada – the Anti-Blasphemy Law in particular.

Libel should not be criminal. And perhaps now I understand why Canada was reluctant to grant me a visa to come here. After all I had been labeled a criminal for doing my job.”

He paid homage to JHR and New Narratives for helping FrontPageAfrica achieve much of what it has accomplished today.

“I am glad though that my struggle for press freedoms has been bolstered by the help of our media development partners, the Canadian-based Journalists for Human Rights and U.S.-based New Narratives.

Their support has helped newspapers like ours to flourish under extremely difficult conditions. I am glad that we have been able to transform lives, and highlighted issues of poverty, neglect and corruption. We have fought to rescue elementary schoolkids from sitting on floors to chairs and brought the corrupt to account.”

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