South Sudan: media censorship

At least 10 South Sudanese journalists has been killed (Photo by Shutterstock)

Media censorship in South Sudan is pushing journalists to leave the country. Ahmad Abdel-Rahman investigates.

Since 1992, at least 10 South Sudanese journalists have been killed while they have been reporting. Murder is the most common cause of death, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ ) report.

Speaking at the Media Development Institute (MDI) awards ceremony, journalist Adia Gildo said: "If you want to die prematurely in South Sudan, you should join the media profession."

According to the Annual Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders' South Sudan ranks 128th, out of 180 countries, for journalists being subjected to censorship, threats, and campaigns of intimidation, unlawful arrests and deaths. Furthermore, many journalists are traumatised from covering the ongoing violence, and are often unable to afford psychological support due to low wages.

As a result, many journalists have joined civil society organisations and the private sector in search of better wages and a safer work environment, emptying the country's already struggling media space. The threats facing journalists working for Eye Radio, an independent organisation that includes a radio station and news website, that is funded by the US Agency for International Development, is an example of these obstacles to press freedom in South Sudan.

The dangers facing journalists in the country

Oliver Moody, a journalist and former head of the South Sudan Journalists Union, said the situation for media professionals in the country is horrible, referring to what happened in January 2015, when five journalists were shot and attacked with machetes and burned in an ambush in Western Bahr El Ghazal state. He said that in March 2022: "Wuja Emmanuel Wani, a former editor for Eye Radio, was kidnapped from the capital, Juba, tortured and poisoned before he could escape."

Wani described his experience: "I was forced into the car at gunpoint; they took me to an unknown location, where they interrogated me about politics." So far, Wani does not know the identities of his kidnappers.

Threats also include campaigns of arrest and detention by state security forces. Award-winning journalist and producer of Eye Radio's Dawn Show, Charles Wooti Jordan, described the media landscape in South Sudan as "appalling". In February, Jordan was covering the renewal of the Agreement on Conflict Resolution in the Republic of South Sudan, when he was arrested along with two other journalists working in the national parliament.

Jordan said: "The media environment is not fair when covering issues related to the agreement. Even with receiving a media invitation, the security men in Parliament told us we were not supposed to be here. They detained seven of us for hours, before they released us later without giving any clear reason for the arrest.

Censorship and closure

Besides direct threats to its journalists, Eye Radio also faced the threat of closure. Referring to the relatively new presence of the independent press in the country, Kwang Pal Chang, director of Eye Radio, said: "There is censorship due to threats and other major challenges, we are even censoring ourselves, because we are trying to lay the foundation in South Sudan." He added: "There is a lack of access to information and a need to develop professional journalism."

The National Security Service of South Sudan temporarily shut down Eye Radio in 2016 after it broadcast an audio clip of opposition leader and current vice president Riek Machar, who was then living in exile in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

"The National Security Agency's media office asked us why we didn't announce the source of the audio clip: 'If you were in an opposition-controlled area, would you broadcast an audio clip of President Salva Kiir?'" Chang said: "It took two weeks of pressure from the station and its two million followers to get the show back on the air."

Six months ago, the station faced even more censorship, as it was forced to apologise after publishing a story deemed critical of the government. Minister of Information Michael Makuei's statement was translated differently. He was quoted as saying that: "The people of South Sudan are tired of their leaders", rather than "The people of South Sudan are tired of us". The station was pressured to apologise to avoid closure.

Chang described what happened during the last few weeks as "beyond journalism". He said the forced apology was because the minister personally hated the station. "Some of us refused to support the decision to apologise, but we had to apologise, given the number of people who need the radio in South Sudan."

Chang explained that the future of press freedom in his country remains bleak, and although there are organisations that defend journalists - such as the South Sudan Journalists Union, the South Sudan Media Development Association, the South Sudan Press Club and the National Press Club - there is a lot that needs to be done at the level of government to improve the state of the media in the country.

He concluded: "Media investors and other stakeholders should continue to do more to educate the authorities on the importance of media for development."

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Saturday, 30 September 2023