[Photo: BBC]

Interview: ‘Uphold press freedom,’- veteran journalist urges government

A veteran journalist, Peter Butili Farrajallah, is calling on authorities in South Sudan to permit press freedom especially for the radio, which is the main medium of mass communication in the country, saying it is an important tool in peacebuilding as the globe celebrates World Radio Day (WRD), today 13 February.

A veteran journalist, Peter Butili Farrajallah, is calling on authorities in South Sudan to permit press freedom especially for the radio, which is the main medium of mass communication in the country, saying it is an important tool in peacebuilding as the globe celebrates World Radio Day (WRD), today 13 February. 

This year’s theme is ‘Radio and Peace’.

Last year, South Sudan was ranked 128th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index. The bigger the number, the worse the environment for news media.

Radio Tamazuj sounded Butili and he speaks about his journey as a journalist working for the state Radio Juba and Television since the 80’s and the importance the radio. 

Below are edited excerpts from his interview.

Q. When did you start working on the radio?

A. I have been working in radio for a long time from 1980 to 1997. After that, I left and joined a different job. I had the privilege of being one of the first groups that established Radio Juba and TV, alongside Faraj Juma Sayeed and Francis Duku Abe. It was a very difficult time but we managed to work in such a situation. I am still in love with the radio. I listen to it every day and I regard myself as one of the elders who still listen to the radio.

Q. What motivated you to work in radio for more than 20 years?

A. I used to listen to the radio since I was still young, such as BBC, DW of Germany, and another radio from South Africa. At that time, we used to listen to shortwave. There was no medium wave or FM. I started loving radio in the 1970s. When I finished my senior secondary school in 1975, I could understand English very well. When Radio Juba was to be established, we started with MW because there was no FM. By then, we had enough equipment, simple and it was a government-controlled radio station. We were implementing the program of the government. You were not allowed to bring any other program. Radio Juba was the only radio station in southern Sudan, and people could listen to it from Wau, Malakal, Torit, and many other places. We had many news presenters such as the late James Walter Ochan, Yousif Michael, and Abe, the majority of them have died now.

Q. Were there some women with you on the radio?

A. Oh yes! We had Fauzia Daniel, Um Al Hassan, Yakusik Samuel, and many others.

Q. Were you inspired by anybody in your family who used to listen to the radio, like your father?

A. It was a personal desire. In my family, no one used to listen to the radio or education. I was the only person in my family who was educated. I completed my senior, university, Master and Ph.D. It was a personal desire and inspiration to listen to BBC, DW, and Uganda Broadcasting Corporation when I was in school in Uganda during the period of Idi Amin. So I loved and desired to work on the radio. I used to stay with the missionaries and I listen to the radio daily. I had a good character which is why they loved me and asked me to stay with them in the compound. I used to update them every day about the latest news and information that is happening. I remember on May 25th, 1971, Idi Amin was overthrown and I was the first person who got the information and shared it with my schoolmates.

Q. This year’s theme is “Radio and Peace”. What is the importance of radio to the people in this regard?

A. Radio is like our ears. If you lose your listening today, you will be deaf and you will not know what is going around you. For example, if they shut down Radio Tamazuj, Eye Radio, VOA, and all the radio stations in Juba, for 24 hours, what do you think will happen in Juba? I believe this will be a big problem. That is why I regard radio as our ears and a window where you can see what is going on outside. Through a window, you can see things outside. That is why I started journalism at a young age. Radio is different from newspapers. When an incident happens, you will get that information instantly. For example, when the Pope visited Juba, I was following the event live through the radio. Many of us did not see the Pope but we saw him through the radio. Newspapers will bring you details very late or the next day. So the success of this visit can be attributed to the radio. So the radio is very useful in our lives.

Q. Do you think people listen to the radio?

A. Wow! Everybody in Juba is listening to the radio. If these radios are shut down, people will not get information. I think a coup can even happen in Juba if there is no radio.

Q. How can the radio create an impact on the communities in South Sudan?

A. Radio has a lot of roles to play in educating the community through programs. For example, radio can play a positive role in culture, health, agriculture, and politics. But our politicians in South Sudan have a negative perspective on the radio. I am very sorry to say this. Our government doesn’t understand this role. They see the radio as a bad thing. They want the radio to speak positively about them and publish their reputation. Radio is supposed to speak the truth. When 20 people are killed, the radio will say the exact figure. But the government will say only five people have been killed. If you insist on saying the exact figure, they go angry with the radio station.

Q. As a veteran journalist in South Sudan, how would you evaluate the role played by the radio in peacebuilding and conflict resolution among communities in the country?

A. Very good question! We started working on the radio during the rule of President Nimeri. And when he was almost overthrown in 1977, missionaries invaded Radio Omdurman. It was shut down and the program was shifted to Radio Juba. We were the ones who stood strong and spoke about this and let the world know.

Secondly, in conflict resolution, radio plays a great role. For example, the radio has played a great role in disseminating information about the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which was signed in 2005. We have the 2018 peace agreement; radio still played a positive role in explaining the provisions of the agreement to the community. In such a situation, if you shut down the radio, people will not know what is going on. There are many examples. 

Q. Which radio stations have been playing a positive role in informing communities across South Sudan?

A. We have a lot of radio stations in South Sudan that bring their news with independent views, which bring all parties. Earlier on we have Sudan Radio Service, which now has been named Eye Radio. Radio Tamazuj also has been playing very good independent views. We have Radio Miraya. It is also a very good radio. And we have other radio stations in Juba, but they are not heard across the country and they are being suppressed and they don’t have an independent view. Radio Juba is good but it belongs to the government. They bring what the government says. If they bring something against the government, they will be punished.

Q. How do you look at the future of radio in South Sudan?

A. The future of the radio is very good but it is our responsibility to grant more freedom for radio work. Media institutions in the country; such as AMDISS, should be given enough freedom so that they can exercise full power. Radio needs freedom and without that, we can’t do much. The first principle of radio is freedom of expression. If we get that in South Sudan, we don’t have any problem at all.

Q. What are some of the challenges facing journalists and media outlets in South Sudan?

A. As I said I have been working in a government-owned radio and we did not have much freedom of what to say. During that time, we didn’t have newspapers in South Sudan. Since we worked for the government, you don’t hear something about harassment of journalists or somebody being detained because of his work. But many institutions are now owning radio and some belong to individuals. They started telling the truth that covers varieties of issues, not only the government programs. That is why we have a lot of changes in the work. One of the changes I see nowadays is that journalists are arrested and instructed not to speak up.

Secondly, even if a radio station was granted a license, they are not free to speak about what is happening. 

The third challenge that I see is censorship of press freedom, this has not been less due to the presence of the UN, Troika, and other international entities who keep on speaking up about this. A few years ago, I heard a government official telling Eye Radio that he will shut their eyes. This is a big threat and it is not a good indication.

Q. What is your last message on this occasion?

A. My message to authorities is that as they keep on speaking about the importance of peace, let them give enough freedom to all radio stations so that all information about peace should be heard. Secondly, any single piece of information about peacebuilding should reach all states. Thirdly, civil society should be given the right to speak up. They should not be arrested because of speaking the truth. This should stop.

No one will stay in power forever. Even if they still wanted to stay longer, they are growing old. After 5 to 10 years, some will die or they will be in their 80’s or 90’s. So they should not stay in power now and dictate to people and tell them what to do or not to do.

Joseph Lago is still alive. And during his time, he was very tough and we were the ones who host him on the radio. Now if you ask him a question, he speaks randomly and at the time it is hard to understand what he saying. The same applies to Abel Alier. So that means, everybody is going, don’t spoil your future alone. You should not reach a stage the community starts hating you even to the extent of wishing for your death. 

Let them give freedom to the radio and let them do their job. If they are afraid to lose their position, it is not radio that will do. It is the community that will take you away from authority.