Josephine Achiro Fortelo is fighting for improved reporting standards in South Sudan, a mission that has its dangers. But her little community radio station in the world's youngest nation is not about to be silenced.
She almost quit her job that day. That's how frightened she was. Josephine Achiro Fortelo is the director of Bakhita Radio, a community radio station in South Sudan, and was on air in the studio when a group of strangers loudly hammered on the door. "One of the men, who didn't identify himself, made it pretty clear to me that in future, I'd better not talk about the conflict between the government and the rebels," she recalls. Back in her editorial office, the 30-year-old journalist was subjected to additional verbal and physical intimidation.
She later began having doubts about her chosen profession and began to realize why she had been attacked. She had invited both parties involved in the civil war to be on her show to tell their side of the story. "Actually, all I did that day was review the facts," she concludes.
"We need a new language"
After the incident she had personal discussions with her 18 colleagues from the station, as well as with colleagues from South Sudan's Catholic Community Radio Network. Bakhita Radio is one of nine small regional radio stations that share programming and that are supported by the Catholic Church. The stations' mandate is to provide information for South Sudan's religious and ethnic minorities.
What happened to Achiro Fortelo at her community radio station is an experience shared by most editorial departments across the country. Although there had been high hopes for a free press when South Sudan achieved statehood in 2011, reality quickly set in, especially after fighting between the government and the rebels resumed in 2013.
Since then, journalists have been under enormous pressure and are being threatened, intimidated or even murdered. Critical and balanced reporting is almost non-existent. In 2014, the government shut down Bakhita Radio for a few weeks, claiming that it was fuelling the conflict. Despite the attack that day, many encouraged Achiro Fortelo to continue. She began to see things differently, and realized that beyond the dangers and the daily struggle, journalism also offered an opportunity to help heal this torn nation.
"We need a new language called freedom," she says. It is this thought that motivates her to keep fighting for the survival of her station. Although the station is under financial and political pressure, it broadcasts everyday thanks to a 72 meter-high radio antenna in the country's capital, Juba. The only disruptions these days have been caused by an electrical generator that occasionally malfunctions.
Vital source of information
She's their rock. Achiro Fortelo handles content, fundraising, the power supply, whatever it takes to stay on air
For the past ten years, Bakhita Radio staff have been broadcasting more than twelve hours of live programming daily in English, Arabic and three other local languages. The station broadcasts on an FM frequency known across the country.
Formats include discussions, call-in shows or short information segments on health, community news and important dates. Bakhita Radio is currently focusing on practical information regarding education, health, religious life and women's rights. There are also targeted broadcasts for people traumatized by the civil war.
Local radio stations like Bakhita Radio remain the most important sources of information in South Sudan. One reason is that only one in four of South Sudan's approximately ten million people can read and write. For them, radio is a lifeline.
Achiro Fortelo is aware of this responsibility. With much dedication and attention to detail she manages the business side of the station, and discusses topic ideas and applies for donor funding.
Eyes and ears of the community
The story of how Achiro Fortelo became a journalist echoes the overall situation in South Sudan. Five years after independence, the country's foundations are still constantly shifting. Achiro Fortelo initially worked in the Office of the Bishop, and then went on to become an elementary school teacher. A talk with Bakhita Radio's former studio manager sparked her curiosity about a well-respected profession in South Sudan, but one that's badly paid. As she experienced herself, it also involves certain risks.
But she remains committed to journalism, and is now looking ahead. "South Sudan has to become a better place for all of us," she says. And for that, she stresses, "we need good journalists and a free press."
That's why Achiro Fortelo is involved with the Association for Media Women in South Sudan, and with the training of young journalists in her community radio network. For this, she often works with DW Akademie advisors and trainers. She is also passing on what she learned after taking part in DW Akademie workshops herself. Forty-five other journalists from the community radio network have also participated in similar workshops, and are now the "eyes and ears" of the community, says Josephine Achiro Fortelo, and smiles.
Smiling, she adds, is a broadcasting mandate at Bakhita Radio. After all, she says, one of the meanings of the Arabic word "Bakhita" is happy.