'Peace is the only option': South Sudanese journalist awarded Press Freedom Prize

The South Sudanese journalist Josephine Achiro Fortelo has long fought for press freedom in her homeland. Her work has now been recognized with the Johann Philipp Palm Award for Freedom of Speech and the Press.

Intimidation and violent attacks on journalists are no rarity in South Sudan. But there are still brave men and women who, despite threats, defend freedom of opinion and of the press.

One of these is Josephine Achiro Fortelo. She is a radio journalist and project coordinator of the Cross Border Network (CBN), a radio project of DW Academy. She mediates between 22 radio stations in Uganda and South Sudan, and supports the peace process by supplying independent information.

On December 2, Achiro Fortelo received the Johann Phillip Palm Award for her outstanding commitment to freedom of opinion and freedom of the press.

Previous prize-winners include Seyran Ates, the German-Turkish women's rights activist who founded the first liberal mosque in Berlin; Alaa Al-Aswani, the Egyptian writer who touched on many taboos in Egyptian society with her novel The Yacoubian Building; and Christian Führer, the former pastor of St Nicholas Church, Leipzig, where protests erupted in the 1980s against the East German regime.

Read moreDW Akademie: Palm Foundation Award for Josephine Achiro Fortelo from South Sudan

Deutsche Welle: You were just awarded the Palm Freedom of Opinion prize. How significant is the prize in terms of your work?

Josephine Achiro Fortelo: The prize means a lot to me and the media in South Sudan. It's a reminder of the responsibility we have as journalists, because the prize came as a result of what we are doing as journalists in South Sudan. It will remind me of the duties I have as a journalist to serve my people and provide them with the information they need that will save lives in South Sudan.

What do you do to support press freedom?

Josephine Achiro Fortelo, at Bakhita Radio, has the editorial process under control as she assigns the topics of the day. One reporter will call in at the town hall in Juba to ask about a possible cholera outbreak. Someone also has to cover a demonstration for women's rights, a topic close to the Catholic Network station manager's heart - and also the subject of her afternoon call-in program.

What motivates you to keep going?

South Sudan is a divided country and many have been traumatized by the civil war. For Josephine Achiro Fortelo and her colleagues, this means finding ways to break the cycle of violence. Which they've done for the past ten years, risking their own lives. Achiro Fortelo was once threatened in her own office. Still she steadfastly maintains, "We now need just one language - and it's called unity."

What does your workplace look like?

Keeping Bakhita Radio going takes a lot of work. When Achiro Fortelo applies for funding from donors, it's just the first step. The community station's antenna needs electricity to keep transmitting. This means a daily battle since energy prices have gone through the roof - and the ancient generator is constantly breaking down. Staying "on air" is in many ways a major challenge.

How do you stay up to date?

In South Sudan, the smartphone has arrived, particularly among the 400,000 inhabitants of the capital Juba. Nevertheless, the radio journalist insists on her daily newspaper. Together with radio, newspapers are still the main media form. But politicians are too often quoted unfiltered and Achiro Fortelo searches in vain for critical reporting. The interesting information is between the lines.

Where does your inspiration come from?

It's important to switch off. Your life is in constant danger as a journalist in South Sudan, says Achiro Fortelo and takes a deep breath. After work she relaxes on a hotel terrace, using the wireless network to chat with friends. During quiet moments like these, she's reminded that her country has a lot of potential. And that community radio has an important part to play.

While you have tended to work as a journalist, you have shifted to media training and management. How does this help your cause?

I like it because I work with the community. That is the most important part of it to me because I mostly deal with citizen journalists. Citizen journalists are part of the communities. They can be teachers; they can be farmers or community leaders. I give them the ABC of journalism so that they feed the community radio we have in our communities with the information they need. South Sudan is a very complex state. Mobility is one of the problems. Journalists don't have access to all the angles [nationwide] at the level of their community. They cannot reach anywhere. So we believe in helping citizen journalists get information from wherever the signal reaches. I love working with the community, for my people.

Read moreMSF helps 157 women in South Sudan after 'dramatic increase' in sexual violence

What are the topics South Sudanese people want to be informed about on the radio?

In general and in the media, we are in the nation-building process. We talk a lot about peace and peace building, conflict resolution and peaceful coexistence. This is a topic we try to focus on. Though we also have other things, like agriculture. We import everything we consume in South Sudan, so we are supposed to talk about that. [But] we need to have a peaceful environment to do it.

Frau Josephine Achiro Fortelo

"Now we only need one language — and that means unity." The theme underlying Josephine Achiro Fortelo's press freedom message

How does your radio network deal with the problem of illiteracy and the multitude of local languages in South Sudan?

I talk to people in South Sudan who don't know how to read and write with the help of a translator who can translate what I say into their local languages. The original idea was one radio station covering the whole country, but the question of language became a big discussion. How could you reach people in states where English and Arabic aren't spoken languages? So we have eight radio stations in the country now [and] every station broadcasts in the language of their community.

Read moreRadio crosses borders in war-torn region 

In South Sudan, a lot of journalists get threatened or even killed. How does that affect your work?

I really thank God that some of us are still alive today. Our hearts are with our colleagues who lost their lives in the process of serving the nation as journalists. South Sudan is not a friendly country for the media, but we still need to inform our people. I tried to tell our leaders that it is a good thing to get feedback from the people, because they know what is going on. They remind you if something is going wrong. Since the signing of the peace agreement and the establishment of media authority, we have not heard of any arrests of journalists. But they can still harass you, or remove articles before printing. Those things are still there, but not like before. We don't say that people don't get killed, only the style of killing is now different. We have something called "unknown gunmen" in South Sudan. It is very difficult to identify whether the murder of a journalist was a targeted killing. 

Frau Josephine Achiro Fortelo Radio Bakhita Südsudan

Josephine Achiro Fortelo in South Sudan's capital, Juba, in 2016

How does it feel to be under constant threat?

I was once thinking about leaving the country. But then I convinced myself that if everyone fled the country, who would work towards changing the situation? If I leave the country, who is there to do it? I'm not alone. We are many. I have colleagues and we have a lot of people working in the media. We believe that one day [these] things will come to an end.

What part do journalists and radio play in the process of peacemaking?

On the radio we read out articles one by one to our audience to make them understand what was agreed upon during the peace process, and what is needed from citizens to contribute. Some of the communities in South Sudan believe that they cannot live together. So one thing we do is try to maintain the process of peaceful coexistence. We want our communities to live together.

What is your wish for the future of your country?

My wish is to see South Sudan like any other country. We need citizens who love their country. Let's build up our country together. We have a lot of refugees in Uganda, Kenya and Congo who need to come back. I have a strong belief that we can make South Sudan a better state for all of us to live in. We need to believe in ourselves. Peace is the only option.