Catholic News Service photo
Opi Ako Morris co-hosts the morning "Juba Sunrise" program on the Catholic Church-sponsored Radio Bakhita in Juba, Southern Sudan. He is interviewing Omar Sebit Lado, a local historian.
Catholic News Service photo
Opi Ako Morris co-hosts the morning "Juba Sunrise" program on the Catholic Church-sponsored Radio Bakhita in Juba, Southern Sudan. He is interviewing Omar Sebit Lado, a local historian.
JUBA, Southern Sudan — A feisty Catholic radio station in Southern Sudan has opened the airwaves to ordinary citizens to express their views on how democracy will take shape in what may soon become Africa's newest country.

Radio Bakhita, a project of the Archdiocese of Juba, has incurred opposition from government officials and even sparked a rebuke from church leaders, yet its director, Mexican Comboni Sister Cecilia Sierra, says the station will continue helping people construct a new nation in the wake of decades of war.

"With a highly illiterate population and poor infrastructure, the only way to effectively communicate with people in Southern Sudan is radio. Yet, more than just giving people information, we offer a platform for people to communicate among themselves, a place for them to express their views and opinions and feel like active members of whatever is taking place," Sister Sierra told Catholic News Service.

Named after Josephine Bakhita, a slave girl from Darfur who went on to become Sudan's first Catholic saint, the station broadcasts in a local version of Arabic, as well as in English and a host of local languages. Such versatility has helped the station reach people who have not felt included in the political development of the semi-autonomous country, which signed a cease-fire with the government in Khartoum in 2005. A referendum on independence is scheduled Jan. 9.

"We've opened access to people who otherwise would be untouchable, unchallenged by criticism. For example, a traffic police official came on and said they were doing this and that. I don't know if he underestimated the intelligence of our listeners, but people started calling in with very concrete examples of how they see the system failing.

"Anyone who comes to Radio Bakhita trying to patronize will immediately confront audiences that are attentive and critical," added Sister Sierra, who studied journalism at La Salle University in Philadelphia. "They let you talk for five minutes, and then the telephone starts ringing."

Sister Sierra came to Juba in 2006 after six years of working on church media in Khartoum, and the station went on the air that Christmas Eve. Although six other Catholic radio stations have since opened in Southern Sudan, Radio Bakhita remains the flagship.

"People call Radio Bakhita the parliament, because it's a place where issues are discussed and many voices are heard. Our programs are listened to by everyone, including the president," said Sister Sierra.

Not everyone in the government has been pleased with what they hear. In 2008, Sister Sierra was called before the minister of internal affairs and asked who gave the station a mandate to talk about politics. She replied to him and also asked Juba Archbishop Paulino Lukudu Loro to publicly clarify the station's mandate.

"He spoke out clearly to say that the mandate of the radio is given by the church, and nobody has any right to tell the church it should or should not be doing this," she said.

In late 2009, students took to the streets of Juba to protest unpaid teacher salaries, and while being chased by police some protesters took refuge inside the station's compound. Several police officers entered and began beating one young woman who worked for the station; they apparently assumed she was one of the demonstrators. Sister Sierra said she embraced the girl to protect her, but the police pulled her away and continued the beating. They left only after Sister Sierra said she was calling the archbishop.

Earlier this year, Sister Sierra said, a security official and a contingent of police came to the station and order it closed. Although she was not directly reprimanded by the head of state security, who chastised a representative of another station in front of her, a lower-ranking official lectured her.

"He told me, 'You heard the message. No more politics.' I said nobody had told me anything. The guy responded, 'He told you not to get into politics. If you get into politics again I will come and close the radio again.' He was so upset he wanted to beat me. He raised his hand. Fortunately, there was a priest there and he didn't, but he felt inferior because I was a woman and I was talking back to him."

Sister Sierra said the incident left her angry.

"If thieves come to my house, I call the police. But if the police attack you, who do you call? If the security that is supposed to protect you are inflicting fear, whom do you trust?"

Sister Sierra said the country has yet to draft a constitution and corresponding laws that would clarify the rules for media.

"There's nothing that tells us what we can or cannot broadcast because there are no media laws yet. In the absence of any broadcasting body, almost anybody can play the arbiter and blow the whistle."

As the country moves toward independence, Sister Sierra says conflicts are normal.

"Everyone is new at this. We're young media and a young police system. We are looking at each other with suspicious eyes. It's mutual," she said.

The station had one spat with archdiocesan officials when it broadcast a program about the number of priests and religious who have left the church to assume government positions.

"I was called in and sanctioned strongly, so I had to write a letter to the archbishop in which I apologized ... for the inappropriateness of the forum," she said. Other than that, the station has had free rein.

In the current period leading up to January's referendum, with the church and government encouraging citizen participation, the station is not experiencing any difficulties, but Sister Sierra said that may soon change.

If Southern Sudan votes for independence, "then the issues to talk about won't be those far way in the North. Instead, we'll be talking about the issues close to home, like tribalism and corruption and how we build nationality. Then we'll be touching each other, our elbows will be bumping together. And then it will be good to have rules for the media and government, defining each others' boundaries, having regulations so that they don't get in my area nor I get in theirs. It will be good to have clear rules of the game," she said.