When poverty-stricken South Sudan became independent in July, its list of priorities was huge. With security, food, health care, education and infrastructure all in urgent need of attention, developing the media landscape might seem a lost battle. But one independent radio station in Juba is fighting nonetheless. 

Source: INSP, 1 September 2011

Nineteen year old Roger Alfred grew up thinking journalism was dangerous. Telling the truth to him was equal to risking your life. In South Sudan during the years of civil war independent media did not exist. Any journalists attempting to criticise the northern government were punished, or even killed. During the eighties and early nineties, critical reporters became victims of the brutal regime.

Radio Bakhita presenter Emmanuel Tombe (22) in the studio in Juba, South Sudan.

Radio Bakhita presenter Emmanuel Tombe (22) in the studio in Juba, South Sudan. Photo: Simon Murphy

One of these victims was Roger’s dad. Roger was only a baby when his father got murdered, but he knows every detail of the story. As the chairman of the Justice and Peace Committee in the South Sudanese capital of Juba, he fought for independence on an international level. At the height of the second civil war, he wrote stories in newspapers and tried to reach out to the world by sending letters to the UN, asking them to interfere and stop the violence in South Sudan. When word of the letter reached Khartoum, warnings started to come his way. He carried on with his work regardless, until the day his courage became fatal. Roger stares in the distance as he speaks: “They killed him, just like that. They thought he was a troublemaker.”

His father’s actions had a profound effect on Roger’s young life. In a country where independent media is still virtually non-existent, -despite the 2005 peace agreement that led to South Sudan’s separation in July this year- Roger decided he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a journalist. Just ahead of the referendum on independence for South Sudan in January he joined Radio Bakhita, a community broadcaster run by the Sudan Catholic Radio Network.

With support from the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF), Radio Bakhita produced peace building programmes ahead of the secession referendum. The station started in 2006 with a tiny studio packed in two sea containers. An estimated 700,000 people listen to the programmes every day.  Thanks to a new 72 metre high mast the station reaches villages as far as 150 miles out of Juba. Broadcasts are done in English and Arabic, as well as local languages like Dinka and Bari.

Radio is the most effective media to reach the masses in South Sudan. Illiteracy rates are high in the south: 2 in 3 people can’t read or write. Many people have wind-up radios donated by charities. Radio consumption is a shared experience: often, up to 6 or 7 people gather around one radio to listen to the programmes.

Like Richard, presenter Emmanuel Tombe (22) also knows the danger of exercising free speech first hand. His father also suffered the consequences of speaking out against the regime. After organising peaceful protests, he was picked up by northern SAF soldiers and brought to a notorious ‘white house’; a torture prison in a secret location where victims never reoccurred from.

Last year during the election the government closed down Radio Bakhita and took equipment. It did not stop Emmanuel from wanting to do his job: “They are just intimidating you. They don’t like local journalists because we reach out to their own people, who need to vote for them. When Al-Bashir came to the South, he would talk to international journalists who flew in, but not to us. We needed to get our information from foreign reporters for our broadcast. It shows that they recognise our reach.”

“We as journalists can balance the information and see things from different sides, but most people can’t. They only think about how many family members they lost.”

Presenter Catherine Baatingo (23) agrees: “We are listened to by everyone in society. People think we are a Catholic radio station, but we cover all aspects of life. We have an audience of Catholics and non-Catholics. We get phone calls saying ‘I am Hassan from such and such place’. Our programmes are relevant to everyone. We play music as well, to give people some relief.”

In the run up to independence, Bakhita covered issues that were on everyone’s mind, but no one had dared to ask. Catherine: “We answered listeners’ questions, like: what happens to returnees when they come back home? Do they still own the right of the land they left so long ago? And if you vote for separation and you are married to a person from the other side, do you need to go back? We addressed the issue of national identity we need to build.”

Emmanuel acknowledges this is a difficult task in a country destroyed by five decades of civil war: “People don’t think about unity in Sudan. We as journalists can balance the information and see things from different sides, but most people can’t. They only think about how many family members they lost.”

At the same time Catherine believes it is possible to bring people together, as all southerners share a common desire for independence. “People ask me: Why is independence so important to South Sudanese? It is the same as asking: would you rather have your own house and do what you like, or would you prefer an oppressor telling you what to do and live with restrictions? That is the choice to us. It is no choice.”

She continues: “We do programmes with children where we let them read messages to their new country on the radio. They say ‘We don’t want more war’. That touches a person, whatever their background.”

Emmanuel sees a clear role for Radio Bakhita in independent Sudan. Now it is no longer ‘north versus south’, he believes it is time to unite the people within the south. Tribal conflicts have divided the south for as long as the war went on, but now is the time to come together, says Emmanuel. “We need to help construct reconciliation in people’s head.”

Roger Alfred in the mean time has almost completed his training as a news editor. He believes the need for independent media in South Sudan is now greater than ever. “For the first time we have our own government. The people of South Sudan need to be informed about the good and the bad that they do. What happened to my father has made me a stronger person. I think he would be proud to see me today.”