Mr Policeman peers up Volkan the cameraman’s lens to see if we are hiding anything there [Photo Anita McNaught]
We wanted striking, distinctive images of local people in Juba registering to vote in the January 11 referendum. And there they were, on a scrubby football field named “Home and Away”, not far from our lodgings. It was the day all police had been ordered to register and dozens were lined up under a tree in bright turquoise uniforms.
So we drove up to the registration desk, piled out of the car and I went over to ask for the “person in charge”.
That’s when the trouble started.
A plain-clothed officer took our accreditation documents from us, and took his time studying them. As with so many of the security people in Juba, he did not remove his mirrored sunglasses, and he did not smile. Instead, he began to issue demands. First, he wanted photocopies of all the documents. Then he told us he needed to call his superiors because our paperwork was “not sufficient” and to do that, he needed a pre-paid phone card for his trouble. We gave him $2-worth. He made a call, then told us we needed written permission from the “CID” to film, and to get that we would have to come with him to the security HQ in town.
I was pretty sure we had all the necessary permits, but was not opposed in principle to acquiring more. We had an hour spare to humour this humourless man. He climbed in our car and instructed us to drive into town.
En route, he called his “boss”. I noted that our local fixer and local driver had gone very quiet. Mr. Policeman was speaking in Juba-Arabic and they were listening hard. They told me afterwards the conversation had gone something like this:
Humourless policeman: “I’ve got some foreign journalists with me. They’ve got letters from the Directorate of Public Security and the Ministry of Information saying they can film the registration. I’ve told them they need CID and I’m bringing them to your office.”
Boss in the office (squawking back on the mobile): “What are you talking about? They’ve got the right papers! Don’t bring them here. I’m not interested.”
Mr. Policeman then stopped the car, and turned to me.
“I’ve decided.” he declared magnanimously in English, “that I shall let you film, but this is at great risk to me professionally because you have not got the right permission, and I am letting you film because I am helping you”.
“Now,” he continued, “I would like to know how you are going to show your ‘appreciation’ of me.”
Realisation had dawned on me rather more slowly than it had for my two local colleagues, that Mr. Policeman had a sideline in extortion. But by now I was quietly furious. And also curious about how far this man was prepared to go.
“Oh, my, ” I enthused, beginning a charade of my own. “That’s terribly kind of you. And I DO appreciate you, we all do. We ‘appreciate’ you very much. THANK you.”
“Let’s go right back to the registration place,” I said to our driver “Now.”
As we started driving back, Mr. Policeman laboured the point. “You must show me that you ‘appreciate’ me, because of the work I am doing for you”, he insisted.
“But Sir,” I continued with scrupulous politeness, “We DO appreciate you, and we all say a big thank-you to you. And look at what we are doing for you: We drove you to town and now we are driving you back…”
This was not the script Mr. Policeman was used to following. He was silent for a moment and then turned sulkily back to me.
“I made lots of calls for you. I want more airtime for my phone.”
My patience ended at this point. Rather wishing I could just lean across and open the passenger door and kick him out into the street, I turned to him and fixed him with a cold stare.
“Let me get this absolutely clear: You want us to give you money for doing your job? Let me be sure I heard you right: You are asking me for money? You are asking for money from Al Jazeera?”
“I want airtime because I have been working so hard for you,” was the peevish response. “You don’t have the right papers. I am taking a risk for you.”
“But I think we DO have the right papers,” I replied firmly, “and my company does not pay money to policemen”. We traveled the rest of the way back in silence. I could practically see the smoke coming from the ears of our cameraman Volkan, who was clearly feeling much the same way as me.
Back at the registration point under the tree more sky-blue uniformed soldiers were lining up, but we weren’t sticking around. We were met by a female registration official, who asked us brightly which TV channel we were with. “I’ve been helping them get permission,” piped up Mr. Policeman. “We’re going,” we said – no time to film.
“But you must film,” he insisted “I got permission for you…”
It wasn’t our first encounter with rogue security forces in Juba. A couple of days earlier our driver was hauled out of our car by an out-of-control traffic cop for an imaginary ‘traffic violation’. I watched him get poked in the forehead by this bully. It had a Basil Fawlty quality to it (the traffic cop was around 6’6” tall) …except that this cop was seriously mean.
I piled out of the car to intervene on our driver’s behalf and the cop roared at me to go away. Only the intervention of two of his colleagues stopped the situation from getting out of hand, because I wasn’t going anywhere. They called me “Comrade Sister”, shook my hand and dragged their fellow officer off of us.
Our driver told us later it was a sadly familiar routine to him – police regularly haul drivers out of their cars on a pretext, then ‘arrest’ them, or confiscate their licences and demand a ‘fee’ for returning them.
There was a third act to this drama. A few days later, with registration officially ending, we needed more people inking their thumbs…and after driving around Juba decided “Home and Away” was the only place to film.
I wandered back over with my paperwork and asked for “the person in charge”. Rather to my dismay, Mr. Policeman was still there. More to my dismay, he was still trying it on.
“I told you that you could film the other day. You had permission for that day. You don’t have permission for today.”
I wasn’t being polite anymore.
“Our permissions are the right permissions for every day,” I challenged. “We are filming here. There is no problem. Now let us do our job. Call your boss if you want.”
“You don’t have a letter from the referendum board,” another official joined in. “You need that letter.”
“No, we don’t. He can call his boss,“ I countered. “This policeman has seen our paperwork. He has copies. He knows they are fine. Your government is happy for Al Jazeera to be here. Police HQ is happy. You have nothing to hide here at the registration centre. Why should you stop us filming?”
So we filmed, Volkan moving deftly around the obstructions, working quietly to get the job done. I was inwardly seething at the abuse of power, but had to calm myself in order to deliver a cheery walk & talk about the ‘festive mood’ in Juba.
On the way home, I was surprised to see our local fixer was chuckling.
“I could hear what the policemen were saying to each other about you,” he explained. Volkan was smiling too. He doesn’t speak Arabic, but he’d overheard them say, “‘Cameraman quayyis’ – ‘The cameraman’s OK,’ but I don’t think they liked you much, Anita.”
Apparently, the conversation went something like this:
Other policeman: “Do you think she’s ever been a soldier?”
Our humourless policeman: “Every time I say something to her, she stands up to me. If I gave her a slap, I’m sure she’d slap me right back.”
Other policeman: “She must have been a soldier – they’re trained – look at the way she’s standing. She could bring you down with one kick. That woman will beat you.”
Humourless policemen: Laughed, and said no more..
I suppose I should be relieved that I can put them on the back foot. I’m 5’4”… 163 cm tall… some of these men are nearing 7 feet.
It was all acquiring a darkly comic quality. The uniforms were clean and tidy, but the moral codes and modus operandi were anything but. And it raises bigger questions about what you do to re-educate young men who have been raised as ‘freedom fighters’ and then asked to take care of civilians.
And from our perspective, how do you remonstrate with a security official who clearly sees nothing wrong in what he is doing?
Did we report either policeman to their superiors? No – because our local men told us that if we did, when we left they would be tracked down by those same security officers, and ‘punished’ for making trouble. I completely take their point.
My respect for independent local journalists in South Sudan increased every day I was there.
In the meantime, I’m calling my kickboxing instructor. I need a refresher course.