The peril of intellectual property thefts and copyright infringements in South Sudan

Posted: August 21, 2018 by PaanLuel Wël Media Ltd. in Atem Yaak Atem, Books, Junub Sudan

Plagiarism, and copyright infringement: a Wakeup call for South Sudanese

By Atem Yaak Atem, Sydney, Australia

Atem Yaak Atem

Atem Yaak Atem is the former deputy minister for information and a veteran South Sudanese journalist who was the founding director, chief editor, and trainer of Radio SPLA (1984-1991). He is the author of a new book, “Jungle Chronicles and Other Writings: Recollections of a South Sudanese, a four-volume memoir, of which Jungle Chronicle is the first instalment.

The premise

Tuesday, August 21, 2018 (PW) — When a country is in the grip of a crippling and divisive war as is the case with South Sudan now, those who discuss matters, for example, such as the arts, promotion of environmental awareness, the value of having national archives, and so forth, can be seen as heartless creatures, indifferent to the suffering of millions of their compatriots and the future of the country. It is a universally acknowledged fact that what we as South Sudanese need is to hammer out an agreement that addresses the root causes of the conflict to be the basis for reconciliation and a lasting peace that provides justice not only for the parties concerned and members of the educated elite but all the citizens and the future generations.

There is no doubt about the validity of this observation. But the pursuit of peace does not prevent people doing what is apparently the norm or mundane. In defence of my erstwhile column, “Far Away from War”, which the SPLM/Update weekly newsletter carried in the 1990s, I argued that in war as well as in peace, people continue to carry on with their lives with a semblance or normality, where and when that is possible. Under any prevailing armed conflict situation, young people even those at the warfront marry, women give birth to children and nurture them, able-bodied persons work for a livelihood, and so forth. It is impossible for people to put on hold every day activity until the advent of peace. That is impossible; the society will simply collapse. This is why I write and read virtually every day despite the persistent agony gnawing one inside because of the tragedy that is threatening the very existence of South Sudan as a burgeoning and independent nation.

Plagiarism and copyright infringement

Issues pertaining to copyright and its infringement or plagiarism, strictly belong to the spheres of law, professional ethics, mainly in publishing, in the academia and journalism. Before I come to the talking point, I have to state that I have been and continue to be a victim of several acts that have violated my rights as a bon fide copyright owner.

First, we have to get a general idea of what copyright, plagiarism and their breaches are, before I come to where I believe I have a strong case to complain.

The online Oxford Dictionary defines “plagiarism” as:

presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own, with or without their consent by incorporating it into your own work without full acknowledgement. All published and unpublished material, whether manuscript, printed or electronic form, is covered under this definition.

Plagiarism as a breach of other people’s rights belongs mainly to the sphere of ethics and morality. A perpetrator in this area suffers reputational damage. To drive the point home, practical examples will serve well here.

Two African presidents have suffered embarrassment as a result of their speechwriters lifting sentences from former US presidents’ inaugural addresses. In 2017, the new Ghanaian president, Nana Akufo-Addo’s speech contained parts of the inaugural addresses from those of Bill Clinton (1993) and George W. Bush (2001). (The clip is on

When it became clear that the speech of Mr Akufo-Addo had incorporated other people’s ideas and words, and without the source being acknowledged, the media, African and Western, came out whistling: what had happened was “lifting”, a milder word for intellectual theft.

President Akufo-Addo’s director of communications, Eugene Arhin, apologised for what he called an “oversight” (Washington Post of January 8, 2017). The matter ended there.

A similar scandal involved another African president, and again when an inaugural address was being made. Speechwriters for Muhammed Buhari of Nigeria were involved in a similar lifting of some sentences from the former President Barak Obama’s speech. Outcry followed, the speechwriters owned up and got the sack for dragging the head of state into a fadieha, as we say in Juba Arabic when we mean to say someone is in the midst of a searing disgrace or scandal.

Copyright infringement

Plagiarism may be a serious breach especially if it involves a substantial amount of material taken from another person’s work and used illegally. On the other hand, a copyright violation is a more serious offence since the perpetrator robs a rightful owner of their product, usually of creative work, which is protected by copyright law.

Without revealing almost nothing about the identities of those involved in the stories that will follow, I am convinced beyond any reasonable doubt that I am an aggrieved party.

First, in regards to plagiarism, this concerns an article I wrote in early 2000s and which was published by Sudan Mirror weekly newspaper. The feature article was about one of the most important towns in what is now South Sudan. That town was once a district headquarters before it progressed to become a provincial capital. The town in question is not in greater Upper Nile, my native home territory. (I find this word to be more convenient and less politically loaded since these days it requires a genius to know all the administrative units- states, counties and whatnots- after the amoeba-like fission of the country- resulting in clan-based and often feuding fiefdoms with high sounding, albeit delusional nomenclatures for them and their headmen).

A member or members of a community hailing from the land for which the town was once a centre, took the article and used it as a whole, as an introduction to their community website. There is no mention of its author or the paper from where it was published and taken. Until the time I was composing these lines, I have never discussed this matter with any other person. I hope the person behind the use of my writing without my written consent should do the right thing (after reading this story): to apologise and attribute the piece to me as its author. Alternatively, that person should apologise and remove my article from the website, pronto. Apology serves well for some of my readers who will be surprised to learn that ignorance of the law- in this case, use of other people’s works without their consent being an offence- is not and cannot be an excuse.

I have to remind the reader that I am not the only person whose written work has been taken and used without consent. A couple of years ago, Dr Douglas H. Johnson, one of preeminent historians of South Sudan had one of his writings not only taken been taken and used without his permission but was also changed and mutilated by someone who wanted to use the scholar’s material to support a dubious argument. I am sure there are several other authors whose works have been subjected to this illicit way of sharing knowledge; only that the perpetrators have not been discovered. The good news is that apart from manual methods of detecting a plagiarism has been committed, people can now resort to computer-assisted plagiarism detection (CaPD) software to catch culprits.

‘John Garang walking in a sea of humanity’ photo

John Garang

Having been photoshopped- without the permission of the picture’s photographer (Atem Yaak Atem)- by an author of a book and his publisher, the SPLA soldiers seated behind their commander in chief, Dr John Garang have been replaced by two hills and shrubs. Garang’s bodyguards on his right and left have also been cropped out, leaving the former rebel chief alone in the bush!

The above subtitle is how a London-based monthly magazine described in 1984, in a caption, the founding leader of the SPLM/A, Dr John Garang as he appears in a photograph, which shows thousands of uniformed men seated behind him. The following are some of the particulars of the photograph:
Place: Bonga military training camp for the SPLA rebel army of volunteers. Bonga is a location within a thick forest and hills. It is not far from Gambella town in western Ethiopia. Time: June 1984. Photographer: Atem Yaak Atem. But all who have used this image, either photoshopped or in the original, have conveniently kept out my name as its creator.

The history of the photo

In May 1984 I arrived Ethiopia from the UK, where I had been a postgraduate student. While there I was a member of the SPLM chapter. After completing my studies, I returned to Africa to organise and run the clandestine radio station that later became known as Radio SPLA. After spending a couple of weeks in the Ethiopian town of Nazareth, 100 kilometres southeast of the capital Addis Ababa, where some senior members of the SPLM and those who had just reported to the organisation were staying, we were invited by the SPLM/A leadership to visit Itang refugee camp, the SPLA GHQs at Bilpam and finally Bonga training centre to meet the refugees and the recruits. Among those who had come from Britain were the late pilot Thomas Korou Tong and Dr Akech Khoch. When we were introduced individually, I vividly recall as it were yesterday, the two received the longest applause. The MC introduced Thomas Korou that he would “fly in (presumably a captured) Nimeiri to you”, while Akech was described as the doctor who would take care of you the soldiers. Indeed, the excited welcome the soldiers gave was not in vain. The physician soon saved lives of hundreds of critically sick volunteers. The doctor would later be wounded at the warfront while taking care of the wounded around Jekou.

Graduation of Koryom division

The Bonga gathering was a morale boosting exercise in that the recruits had come to know first-hand that they were not alone since members of the educated class, especially the professionals who had given up their secure jobs or advanced studies for a national cause, were there with them.

For us who had just returned from Europe, it was heartening- although it was not easy not to be sad at the same time as it was inevitable that some of them were going to fall as martyrs- to see the spontaneous response by young and middle-aged people, students including girls, civil servants, peasants and others, to a national call. The message was clear: the war being waged was not a rebellion by the so called disgruntled elements within the society of Southern Sudan; it was a patriotic war to end oppression from the Northern ruling class, and to usher in an era of justice for all regardless of ethnicity, class, region, gender, faith or age. Or at least that was the official slogan or the ideology of the war of liberation.

In those days, there were absolutely no doubters, otherwise there would be no point for one to court hardship and possible sacrifice of one’s own life. For sure, that was my own conviction, which I thought was shared by all the comrades, whether in the bush, in the government-administered areas or in foreign lands and all working for the same cause.

At Bonga, a huge force of the soldiers to be had been prepared for graduation after completing a gruelling five month-long military training, the time when tens of their comrades had died from disease, mostly malaria and gastrointestinal conditions. The brand new guerrilla soldiers were dressed and looked resplendent in olive green uniforms provided by the government of Libya under Col Muamar Gaddafi. Libya was by far the biggest supplier of arms to the SPLA to fight the regime of his enemy, President Jaafar Nimeiri.

For the occasion, I went armed with a medium size Minolta still camera with a zoom lens. As Garang was going- before he addressed the soldiers- to join the VIPs and the guests seated on a makeshift wooden benches made from poles and elephant grass, I took position, aimed at him and the mass of humanity behind him.

As one can see in the original photo (not published here), Garang was flanked by two or three of his bodyguards. The soldier to the left and almost ahead of Garang, with a raised Kalashnikov, is late Maker Deng Malou, then an adjutant to the commander in chief of the SPLA. After the end of the war Maker, known by the nickname of Jet Fighter, became a member of National Legislative Assembly in Juba.

The secret of the picture

My concentration before clicking the button was to make sure that Garang and the entire “sea of humanity” behind him were fully in focus and that the last row behind the seated soldiers had to be infinite, linking the last it to the horizon. The message I wanted to record was not just Garang and his face or the soldiers around him, but Garang the leader and the big army at his command.

When the picture, which was printed in England, came out, I was pleased that at long last, I was able to put into practice what my instructor in photography taught me during journalism classes in Khartoum in 1976/7. A professional foreign photographer’s verdict on the image at the time was that the creation of an infinite background to the image was a feat. I was thrilled despite the fact that to this day I attribute the success to mere luck rather than skill as I do not have credentials of a professional photographer for which I have to brag about.

Khartoum’s reaction to the photo

The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is true of many images, whether they are paintings or photographs. Throughout my journalistic working life, much of my job in formal communication has always been with words, not photos. Because of the importance of pictures and the role they play in accurately conveying information, photography is an integral component in the training of journalists.

At the time the picture went public and former President Jaafar Nimeiri saw it, reports reaching the SPLM/A headquarters claimed he had to summon his intelligence personnel for a meeting, first to assess the possible number of the insurgents in the picture, and second to discuss strategies to counter the threat from what was officially known by Khartoum as a few bands of outlaws.

The same source from Khartoum reported Nimeiri to have been told by his security that the men in the picture could number between 25, 000 and 30, 000. The authenticity of the story could not be established despite the fact that the SPLA had effectively infiltrated government institutions including the SAF GHQs. Whether the report was true or fabricated, there was no way Nimeiri and his army could dismiss out of hand the information about the size of the rebels in the picture. (Of course, the Government of Sudan had agents who could access some information about the rebel movement especially in the capitals of neighbouring countries and refugee camps, who regularly supplied intelligence to Khartoum via their embassies).

In reality, the estimates of SPLA soldiers reportedly said to have been gleaned by Khartoum from the picture was inaccurate by a large margin. The force known as Koryom (in Nilotic languages) and Jarad in Arabic, all meaning locust, consisted of 11, 200 plus officers and men. The constituent members making the division were from Bor Dinka, Shilluk Kingdom, Murle (majority in Cobra Battalion) and Panaru Dinka of western Upper Nile region. Of course there were sprinklings of soldiers from different communities from Southern Sudan.

Composition of the SPLA

The list that shows that Koryom division as made up entirely of fighters from Upper Nile region needs some clarification. The SPLA and its political wing, the SPLM, were not created in a day nor were they products of a six-day labour like the story of the Creation. The movement’s growth was a process that began in 1983 and continued to mature in quantity, quality and fighting skills (minus discipline as their critics would say) up to a few months before the CPA.

Most members of the intelligentsia reporting to the movement at different times from abroad and from inside government controlled areas tended to be individuals. On the other hand, volunteers from the regions and communities, as a rule used to flock en mass to the training camps in their hundreds and thousands. This was the case with Muor-Muor division, whose members succeeded Koryom at Bonga, were nearly all from Bahr el Ghazal region. Recruits, also in their thousands, came from Equatoria, the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile. That trend continued almost up to the end of 1991.

The photo: the anatomy of impunity

The picture above has been photoshopped. The huge crowd of the SPLA soldiers behind their supreme commander has been removed and replaced by hills and shrubs as one can see at the background. And both the use of the photograph and the alteration to deface it were done without my consent. The altered image was used as a cover for a book. For obvious reasons, I have removed the title of the book, the names of its author and the publishers. They are not South Sudanese, but from an East African country. The book carrying the doctored photo was published in early 2000s. The author gave the publisher the copyright this way “© Copyright Text: x x x” (the name of the author withheld) and “© Copyright Map, Cover Picture and Design: x x x” (name of the publisher withheld).

Promise of a ‘second edition to carry an acknowledgement’

The case narrated above is just one out of several violations that have affected my right as the copyright holder of the pictures and written work.

Still on the same picture, which has been used and mutilated by a book writer and his publisher as mentioned above.

In 2012, I found a book carrying the picture depicting John Garang with a huge number of uniformed soldiers behind him. It is the same picture as the one I have just described above. Luckily for me, the author of that book was in Juba. When I approached and told him that I was the rightful owner of the picture he had used- without taking permission from me- cover for his book, he did not try to deny my ownership of the photograph. In fact, he apologised, verbally. What was surprising, however, was his promise. He told me that he was planning to publish a second edition. “I will acknowledge you”, he told me casually. Upset, I told him matters of copyright are not handled that way. I was soft on him and preferred to resolve the problem in a manner that would do justice to the two of us while at the same time keeping the issue out of public domain. Although he initially looked ambivalent, he agreed to act. He was not being specific. Then not long after that, I had to hurriedly leave Juba in January 2014. Until the time I was writing these lines, that author has not contacted me about how to resolve the problem. I am still waiting.

Still on the same picture. Another author- who should also remain anonymous for the time being- used the same photograph in a book he published in Arabic. Again he did not have my permission to use the copyright photograph. Some colleagues told me they knew the writer and promised to bring us together to sort out the problem. The meeting between me and that man is yet to take place.

Ownership of another of my photos being claimed by someone else

The following is the kind of information someone else has supplied to “explain” a copy of one of my pictures, which I took in 1984 at another location of border between Ethiopia and Sudan (then). The first is his information while my version follows after.

(The writing in that document is in caps).

Photographic interpretation: remembering the unsung heroes of the SPLA

Source of the picture: x x x’s (name withheld) home archives

Photo taken: June 1984

Location: Teda [sic] village of Anyuak in western Ethiopia

Activity: This is the handover to the international community of some white people who were captured by the SPLA at Ajuara in 1984.

The truth about the picture: my version

While the photograph is the subject of the misleading information as seen above, there is no mention of the photographer, who is me.

The facts are: John Garang, Kerubino Kuanyin, Salva Kiir, the current president of South Sudan, Deng Alor Kuol, Costello Garang Riiny and others, identified by the presumptive claimant of the photo, were at Tedo, an Anyuak village. Garang, Kerubino, Costello Garang and I had flown from Ethiopia by helicopter to the border area for the release of two German nationals brought from Bahr el Ghazal by the forces of Jamus Battalion.

Circumstances that led to the arrest and detention of the two German nationals, one of them, a middle aged former police officer and a young man in his late 20s, has several versions, which are irrelevant here. Suffice to add, the other prisoners Jamus soldiers had brought from northern Bahr el Ghazal included Mario Muor Muor, then a university student leader and activist, and one Arop Achir, a graduate of economics from the University of Khartoum in 1974 and a member of Sudan Communist Party. Arop later escaped from prison near Bilpam, reported to the government garrison at Jekou and was later flown to Khartoum, where he led a vitriolic campaign against the SPLM/A through radio broadcasts. Soon Arop converted to Islam, went to Mecca and became Haj and thereafter a Sheikh. In the process he became one of very powerful personages within the ruling National Islamic Front, later to become National Congress Party. All these developments were taking place in a quick secession.

Sheikh Arop Achir died from natural causes before the civil war ended in 2005.

Mario Muor Muor, was later released, trained and commissioned as an SPLA officer. Before he died from natural causes in 1990s Mario Muor Muor was one the SPLA’s powerful commanders. He once served as a personal assistant to John Garang.

The occasion at Tedo

The Germans were being handed over to the representative of the Government of Ethiopia, not “the international community”. The time was August 1984, not June.

Some of the witnesses, who were at the function that day include President Salva Kiir, Costello Garang Riiny Lual, Deng Alor Kuol, Dr Ajak Bullen Alier, who had cut short his medical studies at the University of Juba to take part in the armed struggle.

Mutually acceptable way out and a warning

This note serves as a reminder and a warning. I am running out of patience with those persons who have used my copyright pictures without my permission. Having informed them now through this article, this should be an opportunity for them to know I want them to make amends. It is their turn to contact me so that we begin the process of solving the problem. It is in their interest that these persons contact me through my friends. Silence would mean defiance. I have other options besides pleading.

As for those who are circulating photos for which I hold copyright, the message is: Stop doing that because I have not given you permission to use them in any medium without my written permission. It is in their interest to heed my warning.

Atem Yaak Atem is the former deputy minister for information in Juba and a veteran South Sudanese journalist who was the founding director, chief editor, and trainer of Radio SPLA (1984-1991). He studied Master of Education at University of Wales; Advanced Journalism at International Institute of Journalism, West Berlin and Journalism at Khartoum Institute of Mass Communications. He was also the editor in chief of Southern Sudan monthly magazine (1977-1982), SPLM/A newsletter (1986-1988), Horn of Africa Vision magazine (1997-2000), The Pioneer weekly newspaper (2010-2011), as well as the Nile Mirror (1975-1977) when its chief editor Kosti Manibe had travelled abroad on duty. As a senior journalist, he was also a prominent columnist and contributor to the SPLM/Update (1993-1996), and the Sudan Mirror (2003-2005). He is the author of a new book, “Jungle Chronicles and Other Writings: Recollections of a South Sudanese”, a four-volume memoir, of which Jungle Chronicle is the first instalment.

The opinion expressed here is solely the view of the writer. The veracity of any claim made is the responsibility of the author, not PaanLuel Wël Media (PW) website. If you want to submit an opinion article, commentary or news analysis, please email it to PaanLuel Wël Media (PW) website do reserve the right to edit or reject material before publication. Please include your full name, a short biography, email address, city and the country you are writing from.



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