A life-saving honour
South Sudanese journalist Mading Ngor says winning the inaugural Alumni Excellence Award in 2012 may have saved his life.
In October, Ngor travelled from Juba, the capital of South Sudan, to Victoria to attend the Alumni Awards. He was being honoured for his outstanding contributions to the media landscape in the world’s newest nation, which had been gripped by civil war from 1955 to 2005 (with one modest truce in the middle). After living in Canada for a decade, Ngor returned to South Sudan in 2011, just before the nation officially split from Sudan, to share what he learned in Canada – including freedom of speech – with his homeland. As host of the hard-hitting and popular radio show Wake Up Juba! and as a contributor to various international media outlets, he challenged authority and pushed for transparency.
“Whenever he shows up officials get nervous because they cannot make up facts,” Reuters correspondent Ulf Laessing said of Ngor last year. “One senior lawmaker told me once that Mading Ngor was the biggest troublemaker in town, a real compliment for a reporter. His radio show is the most relevant in South Sudan. Even his enemies in the government often accept his interview requests because everybody is tuning into Wake Up Juba!”
While some “enemies” appeared on his show, others took a more antagonistic approach. Ngor was once thrown out of parliament and roughed up by four security guards who pinned him to the ground and dragged him across the floor, ripping his pants in the process.
“The state of press freedom was getting increasingly hostile and I started to feel significant pushback to my work from some elements in the security forces, who were determined to shut down my show,” Ngor says of the climate preceding the Alumni Awards. “The program’s unabashed criticisms that came through its popular across-the-political-spectrum debates about current events in the country accelerated its notoriety in the security circles.”
Prof. David Black, who taught Ngor while he was a student in the BA in Professional Communication program and nominated him for the Alumni Excellence Award, says his political literacy and social commitment were apparent while he was a student at Royal Roads. “His life story is one of hardship, loss and exile, but he’s translated all that into a journalist’s devotion to the truth, and a young activist’s hope for his new country and its people.”
Ngor says winning the Alumni Excellence Award came at an opportune time. “It allowed me to depart South Sudan at a testy time between the security and I,” he recalls. “I think the award saved my life. Thank you RRU for not just being life-changing, but also life-saving!”
Due to concerns about his personal safety and pressing personal reasons, Ngor decided to stay in Canada for seven months following the Alumni Awards. While living with relatives in Calgary and Edmonton, Ngor searched unsuccessfully for meaningful work in his field at a time when media agencies across the country were downsizing. He worked as a security guard for office properties for a while and applied to various master’s programs. He was admitted to Cambridge’s Master’s in Public Policy and was awarded a scholarship to the Calgary School of Public Policy. However, his desire to return to his homeland and be part of shaping the new nation was so strong he started to plan his return. In May, Ngor returned to South Sudan to work for Bloomberg.
“The way I approach media and journalism is nation building,” Ngor says. “You have a nation that is not a nation state. We have succeeded in getting South Sudan, but we don’t have South Sudanese.”
As for his popular show Wake Up Juba!, while in Canada he left it with a colleague, who hosted for a few months before he gave in to pressure from worried relatives and the persistent crackdown from some in the security services. Upon his return, Ngor tried to revive the show, but the radio’s management feared the move would trigger the ire of security forces. For now, Ngor is focusing on his work for Bloomberg and nation building through sharing the truth.
“It is a dangerous job,” Ngor says of being a journalist. “My goal is to remind my people, my country, about where they have come from. And the politicians … what they have fought for because we lost millions of people to get this freedom.”