Sidney Ocran, Liberian by birth, left behind a country at war and a refugee camp to study journalism in distant Russia, whose government gave him an education grant. Recently graduated, Sidney expects to return to his native Africa, and use his journalistic expertise to help resolve armed conflicts on this hurt and forsaken continent.
Greg Simons – Peace correspondent
Sydney, you’re from Liberia, a country devastated by war in 1990, where some of your family were tragically killed. Having escaped with international help, you stayed for a time in Ghana, and decided to start a new life, even tried to do different types of work. In 1998, you received a grant from the Russian government to study at the Friendship University in Moscow.
What was it that motivated you to apply for this scholarship and go from Africa to Moscow? Why did you choose Russia?
Well, I have always craved knowledge, and I wanted to get more education by going to college. Living in the refugee camp, I shared some knowledge with my fellow Liberians, but I understood that in order to be more useful and effective, if I wanted to impart knowledge, I needed more instruction.
Through the NGO Assistance for all Liberians, who was based in the refugee camp in Buduburam (in Ghana) and was in charge of meeting the needs of refugees, I learned of the existence of scholarships, I applied and was granted.
Actually, I came to Russia because the first application I made failed. The Canadian government offered a grant, but I did not fulfil the necessary qualification requirements, so I waited for a second chance, and it came from Russia.
And in retrospect, do you regret this decision?
Frankly, thinking about the education that I managed to get in this country, no, I do not regret the huge step I took to come to Russia … I feel some nausea when I think of some xenophobic attitudes I faced, however, I think that’s nothing compared with all that I achieved here.
Besides studying journalism, in what other activities have you been involved?
I’ve been the president of the National Union of Liberian students of the Russian Federation for several years. I’ve got some funds from sewing and manufacturing garments for students and diplomats, and I am the director of the choir of the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy, and sometimes I participated in concerts.
Why did you decide to study journalism, instead of, for example, medicine or engineering?
Seeing what happened in my country, Liberia, I strongly believe that the media are a vital instrument for reconciliation, reconstruction and rehabilitation. In my experience, I believe that I can be very proactive in covering armed conflicts, and make a difference in the resolution of such conflicts. With these ideas in mind, I decided to study international journalism.
At what point did you decide to become a journalist?
Well, after reading a bit about what it means to be a journalist, and the role that the profession plays in forming opinions on the speed and extent of existing audiences through modern technologies, then I thought “Yeah, maybe I could study journalism, and perhaps could use what I learned to help immensely in the reconstruction of my country and the African continent in general ”
Moscow is completely different from your previous college experience. How was it to study journalism in this country?
The press is here much more under the control of the state, and as a journalist, you can not freely refer to certain issues, especially if you are a foreign student. However, I must also emphasize that this place always has interesting stories, and to report events or to write about them.
My thesis is about the media and the resolution of armed conflicts on the African continent between 1990 and 2008.
Actually, it is devoted to the study of media coverage in the middle of these conflicts in Africa; it’s an analysis of the performance of the national and international media in portraying the situation of conflicts.
The emphasis is to first explain the causes and events that led to these conflicts on my continent, and then analyze how they were covered in each of their stages by national and international press. Besides that, I also explore media coverage about the efforts of international organizations, they were there to stop or resolve conflicts in the region.
Sydney, you have been living in Moscow for the past 10 years, that means you are by now quite fit. Are you thinking to return to Africa to finish your studies?
Yes, I would use what I’ve learned here to help my continent to solve their conflict. I’ll Agree that today, more than half of the population in Africa are living on less than $1 a day. This is a serious problem that needs to be addressed, because one of the main causes of underdevelopment and poverty on the continent is precisely the war, although of course, factors such as AIDS, malaria and poor governance also contribute; but if Africa continues in this manner, I fear that the problems of government and underdevelopment will never be resolved.
And you think that what you’ve learned in Moscow is applicable to current conditions in Africa?
I firmly believe that what I have learned can be applied to Africa and other regions as well.
What is your opinion on the general trends in African media?
I think it’s been 4 or 5 decades since most countries in the region gained their independence, so it is time for Africa to have its own satellite in orbit, allowing it to issue its own information to the world and to their own people … in order to stop relying on Western media powers.
What essential qualities do you think a journalist must have? And tell me, is it hard to deal with your own expectations?
If we talk about independent media, or independent journalism, one might think that this is impossible in Africa, but I think it’s possible. Ghana is a good example of this: when the defamation law was introduced, it was possible for the press in that country to be free … so to answer the question, I think that freedom is central to both the press as well as the journalists themselves, who should follow the ethics of the profession to the letter.
What advice would you give to those who want to become journalists and perhaps want to follow in the same path you have chosen?
I would advise people to be very vigilant of their behavior and in their attempts to pursue this profession, because as a journalist, the stakes are high. One must earn credibility, and this is only achieved through objectivity, impartiality and neutrality.
How do you envision yourself in 5 years?
To be frank, I can not predict the future; However, within 5 years I would be actively involved in journalism, using my skills to help solve the many problems that plague the African continent by the conflicts that occur there.
Sidney Ocran defended his thesis in February 2009, is currently awaiting his PhD in order to return to Liberia, where he hopes to pursue journalism that promotes peace on the continent.
About the Author:
Greg Simons is a researcher at the “National Centre for Crisis Management Research” in Stockholm, Sweden, and is also a guest researcher in the department of Euro-Asian Studies at the University of Uppsala. He has a PhD in Russian studies from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, and specializes in issues on Russia, media and crisis. This interview was originally published by the European Journalism Centre.