Apollonia Mathia was a rare gem – a women’s rights activist and journalist – who fought tirelessly pre-South Sudan’s liberation from the Khartoum regime. She defied all odds in the turbulent post conflict region, stood for a free media, advocated for women’s voices and used the media as a tool to advance gender equality. She started out as a radio reporter and progressed to become a print journalist.

Mathia survived it all and had the ability to adapt to the changing times. She spent her childhood in northern Uganda, which at the time was under Idi Amin and his soldiers who reigned with terror and impunity against its people. She then moved to Juba as a young adult where she was sometimes forced to sell firewood to survive in a garrison town controlled by the northern Sudanese army. Curfews and fear of torture were the order of day. Peace negotiations started in 2005 and after a protracted process an agreement was eventually reached to have Northern and Southern Sudan as two separate countries in 2011. She witnessed Juba become the new capital city of South Sudan leading to a 53-state African continent.

Becoming the first female journalist in South Sudan

Mathia was one of the first female journalists to report during the very delicate peace agreement between Northern and Southern Sudan, which was signed after 22 years of civil war. She became a fearless reporter when she worked for the independent newspaper The Juba Post that began publishing in 2005. During this time, the war-scarred nation treated journalists with suspicion. Media was hardly a familiar concept and women in the workplace was unusual, let alone one who rides on rickety motorbikes with a pen and notebook in pursuit of stories.

She reported comfortably across a wide spectrum covering the political, economic and social lives of the people of Southern Sudan. She covered stories such as that of the infamous Ugandan rebels, the Lord’s Resistance Army also known as “tong tong” – “cut cut” who were known for their notoriously brutal machete attacks, without any fear.

Founder of The Juba Post Hildebrand Bijleveld, said of Mathia: “To exercise real freedom of the press did not come for free. She fought for it.”

Tom Rhodes, CPJ East Africa consultant, who had met and worked closely with Mathia and spent countless hours with her and her children at her tukul, the Juba-Arabic term for a local hut, described her as a writer who brought sensitive topics such as domestic violence and the crucial role of female leadership within the paper’s pages to the fore. She had divorced her husband and brought up her children while working as a journalist and social activist.

Apollonia Mathia’s activism

Mathia eventually left The Juba Post to work for the BBC Monitoring Service in 2008, and proceeded to found the Association of Media Women in South Sudan (AMWISS) and became its director, an organisation that pushed for visibility of women and women’s issues within the press.

Apart from having served as an editor in various media houses, she was instrumental in founding the Union of Journalists of Southern Sudan (UJOSS). She was a visionary of note; as country coordinator of Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP), long before South Sudan became Africa’s youngest state, she had successfully made a case to insert ‘South Sudan’ into the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) report, as a country in itself for the purpose of the monitoring.

“It was so interesting to see my monitors busy reading through the newspapers, recording the 06:30 pm news and 08:00 pm South Sudan TV news… just the very exciting moment was when the revelation dawned that some news had no gender representation at all. The monitors instantly understood that issues of importance to women are not really addressed in this part of the country”, she reflected as far back as 2009. The report was released in 2010, in Juba where representatives from media houses came out in recognition of media practitioners’ roles as key change agents in the struggle for more gender-responsive media.

Mathia sadly passed away in March 2011. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that she met her death after a truck lost control, veered off the road and crashed into the motorcycle that she and her son were riding. Mathia will be remembered for her courage to go where even the strong could never tread.