Killing the Messenger: attacks on press freedom in South Sudan Print

manwithsouthsudanflagBy Paul Jimbo, MDI South Sudan Country Coordinator

Despite the general feeling that all is well in South Sudan with regards to press freedom, the truth is, that the media in the world’s youngest nation is under attack. A closer scrutiny of the media situation in the country paints a grim and gloomy picture of press freedom.

“It is a picture of a desperate sector struggling to overcome unending turbulence. It is a sector crying out for the right to access information and disseminate information,” says Oliver Modi, Chairperson of the Union of Journalists of South Sudan (UJOSS). Modi observes that due to lack of media laws in South Sudan, journalists have had their cameras or equipment confiscated or damaged by plain-clothed security operatives, who either demand an official permit from the journalists or label them as spies without proof. David de Dau, the Executive Director of the Agency for Independent Media (AIM) commented, “We have a number of disturbing reports from different parts of South Sudan which are of major concern to us as media, to the people of South Sudan, to the region and indeed to the world as a whole. We have cases where journalists have been arrested, harassed, intimidated, threatened, humiliated, molested, tortured and detained for no clear reason.” This trend is worrying stakeholders in the sector.

There is also lack of understanding amongst law enforcement agencies on the role of the media; a situation which has only worsened the state of media freedom, as security agencies continue raiding media houses and harassing journalists with complete impunity.

In one of the worst examples of attempts to gag the media in South Sudan, in 2010, security forces in the capital Juba, raided two media houses, arrested personnel and even ordered them to shut their operations. Juba’s Bakhita and Liberty FM stations went off air for close to two hours after security forces purportedly dispatched by the Public Security Director’s Office, stormed them and ordered their immediate closure.

First to be arrested was Liberty FM’s Albino Tokwano, the station’s General Manager. Speaking to The People’s Voice, Mr Tokwano, who vividly recalled the incident said, “They bundled us into their vehicle before driving us to the office of the Director General of Public Security.”

“They demanded copies of our popular ‘Evening Drive’ live call-in programme. They alleged that we hosted a senior political figure whose sentiments and utterances presented the SPLM government in a bad light,” asserted Mr Tokwano. “When they released us, they asked us never to host anybody critical of the government or else they promised to permanently shut down our station,” he added.

The same day, Bhakita FM’s Director, Sister Cecilia, was also arrested and bundled into a police car before being driven to the public security office for interrogation. She was accused of hosting opposition leaders in programmes that were allegedly aimed at discrediting the government.

Radio Bhakita’s Station Manager, Sister Paula, confirmed that indeed her colleague, Sister Cecelia, was picked up and questioned for nearly two hours at the Director of Public Security’s offices. “During all that time, our station remained closed as security agents surrounded the building after switching off our equipment. They however returned back the keys after grilling Sister Cecilia,” said Sister Paula.

In fact, 2010 as a whole was a bad year for press freedom, witnessing a high number of incidents all over South Sudan. In Bor town of Jonglei state, a journalist was arrested, harassed and detained for more than three days only to be released without charge. In Unity state, another journalist was arrested, beaten and tortured in detention. In Western Equatoria, a female journalist was intimidated and reportedly sexually abused. In all three cases, according to security intelligence officers, the reporters were suspected of spying. In Eastern Equatoria, a journalist was arrested, harassed and detained for two days.

In April 2010, Banifacio Taban Kuich, a reporter with online journal, Sudan Votes, was arrested and beaten before being detained for thirteen days in Upper Nile’s Bentiu town. Banifacio was also accused of spying for the Khartoum regime by allegedly pretending to be a journalist.

In Lakes state a journalist was taken from his house and locked up after publishing a story that seemed to implicate state authorities in corruption. In other cases from Lakes State, there are many examples of journalists being compelled to broadcast biased information, especially that perceived to be destructive to the establishment’s adversaries or favorable to those in powerful positions.

sudanmapminiThe situation this year has not shown any signs of improvement. A Sudan Radio Service journalist was detained by public security in Wau, after he was picked up by plain-clothed security, in May, for taking photographs without permission. The reporter, Mohammed Arkou Ali, was on an official assignment to gather news and programmes for the Darfur News and Information Service. On May 21st, Ali was moved from a detention center outside Wau town where he had been held for thirteen days to the public security office in Wau, from where he was later released after a further five days in detention, after petitions and protests by the management of his radio station.

Also this year, both The Juba Post and The Citizen newspapers joined the list of media houses that have been attacked. Only a couple of days after the January 9th referendum, Michael Koma, Secretary General of UJOSS, and Chief Editor of The Juba Post, one of the most prominent national papers, was arrested, though quickly released, because of a piece he wrote about irregularities in the affairs of a leading bank. In April this year, an entire issue of The Juba Post was confiscated, and Mr Koma detained once again due to another piece on an interview with a rebel leader, which the government deemed was a threat to national security.

Koma explained, “All that I went through was just attempts by certain politicians to threaten and intimidate me to tone down my voice on issues perceived as corruption cases. Some powerful people would not want the media to expose their scandals yet they think journalists can be hoodwinked to cover their ills; this is why I was arrested and even summoned several times.”

In the same month, journalists from The Citizen newspaper were beaten by security forces as they reported on demolition work at Juba University and then the newspaper’s editor Nhial Bol was arrested after reporting on the attacks on his journalists.

Following the incidents in April, GoSS Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Dr Barnabas Benjamin Marial, reassured a delegation of Media Diversity Institute and UJOSS officials that the government was keen on promoting press freedom. According to Dr Marial, the reported cases of attacks on the media were merely isolated cases involving errant officers and some civil servants keen on maligning the otherwise good intentions of the young government. The delegation led by MDI’s Executive Director, Milica Pesic, and UJOSS’s Oliver Modi, had paid a courtesy call on the Minister to raise concerns over continued attacks on the media and the government’s perceived reluctance to pass the media bill.