Juba — Following a series of attacks, intimidation and threats, comment writers and bloggers in South Sudan say they are operating in a heightened sense of fear.
Speaking a month after a prominent op-ed writer was shot dead by an unknown group after consistently criticising the government, South Sudanese journalists and commentators have spoken to Sudan Tribune about the risks that accompany freedom of expression in the young nation.
"In 2010, I was arrested and detained for 12 hours after writing an article on how president Salva Kiir should have appointed his cabinet," John Mading Yak recalled on Wednesday.
Yak, who has since abandoned opinion writing, is just one of many South Sudanese writers who have experienced difficulties for expressing his views on national issues through the press.
In an article written three years ago before South Sudan gained independence, Yak proposed that some cabinet positions should be given to people who were "experts" in their field.
The article was published after the 2010 elections under the heading "If I were President Salva Kiir Mayardit, this would be my cabinets". In detention, Yak was allegedly told to stop writing due his young age.
Yak, 27, argues that there should be nothing wrong with young people in South Sudan "who want to express their opinions" in the press and other forums.
South Sudan seceded from Sudan in 2011 following a referendum promised in the 2005 peace accord that ended two decades of north-south civil war.
During the civil war, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) - the former rebels who now govern the world's youngest nation - stated that they were fighting for the rights of those marginalised by various Khartoum regimes.
The SPLM accused the northern elites, who have ruled Sudan since independence in 1956, of oppression and restriction on fundamental freedoms, including a free press and freedom of expression.
But since taking charge of South Sudan in 2005 as a semi-autonomous region, there have been numerous complaints of intimidation against civil society activists and journalists from agents of the state and their affiliates.
ATTACKS ON THE PRESS
In December 2012, a leading political activist Isaiah Ding Abraham Chan Awuol - popularly known as Isaiah Abraham - was killed in Juba. The government says that the circumstances indicate that there is a 70% chance that it was an assassination.
South Sudanese Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin 2 April 2 2012 (Getty)
Earlier this month, government spokesman and minister of information Baranaba Marial Benjamin said some suspects had been arrested, but nothing more is known about how many or who the suspects are.
Since the killing of Abraham, South Sudanese opinion writers and journalists have lived in fear. Some writers allege that they are threatened by text messages for asking the government to account for the assassination of Abraham.
At a ceremony organised by South Sudanese opinion writers in Juba on 4 January to pay tribute to Abraham, proponents of press freedom talked of their determination to continue "knocking [on] the door of those [in] power."
Nhial Bol Aken, the founder and editor-in-chief of the Citizen Newspaper, said the killing of journalists is not new in Sudan, having witnessed the practice in Khartoum himself. Bol has now challenged the leaders of the new country to prove that they are different from the Khartoum regime they split away from.
Nhial Bol Aken, The Citizen's editor in chief in Juba 12 December 2010 (ST)
In 2012 Sudan was ranked 170th in the annual press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RWB), with South Sudan ranked 111th out of the 179 states included.
However, the international media watchdog has warned that South Sudan's ranking is expected to slip in 2013, according Al Jazeera, due to the general heavy handedness of the security forces in dealing with the media and the killing of Abraham at the end of last year.
South Sudan's problems in regard to media freedom and safety of journalist lies with many of the people working in the country's government and security, RWB told Al Jazeera. Many officials have picked up bad habits, including a disdain for journalists, from the experience of sharing power with - and previously being ruled by - the Khartoum government for six years during the peace process that led to South Sudan's independence in 2011, the press freedom organisation said.
CHANGING A "WAR MENTALITY"
In September 2011, just months after South Sudan's independence a report by press freedom group - the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) - found that "local journalists fear the former rebels turned government officials who still harbor a war mentality that is unaccustomed to criticism, and that they are not prepared to extend the freedoms they fought hard to attain."
Recent events, including Abraham's death, indicate that South Sudan's journalists are still a long way off achieving the freedom independence had promised.
The issue of state intervention appears to apply to state media as well as the private and independent press.
Employees of South Sudanese state media were recently detained in Wau, following violence there in December last year. The authorities have maintained that it is an administrative issue triggered by the failure to adequately cover a presidential visit. Local journalists, however, say the government has been angered by footage showing armed men - assumed to be police - firing at unarmed protestors reaching the international media.
DECLINE IN CRITICAL OPINION ARTICLES
Though regular contributors to local newspapers have not halted their work, the number of articles critical of the country's leadership appears to have decreased since Abraham's murder. Those who stopped commenting on national issues say they don't want to risk being killed.
"I will write again when I see that the environment [for freedom of expression] is better," said Manyang David Mayar, a reporter for The Juba Post and a stringer for Voice of America's South Sudan in Focus programme. Manyang used to contribute opinion articles to local newspapers but now thinks he has to "dance according to the tune."
He has not been arrested before but says that avoiding writing critical stories is a precautionary measure to protect his life. Writers who faced harassment from suspected state agents, like freelance journalist John Mading Yak, say it is "better to stay alive" and sacrifice his constitutional right to freedom of expression than risk a fate similar to Abraham's.
STILL NO MEDIA LAW
Efforts made to reach South Sudan's ministry of information for comment for this article failed, despite several requests. But in the past, officials have called for responsible journalism, adding that enacting a media law will help protect journalists.
Despite governing the South since 2005 the SPLM-dominated parliament has not passed a media law, leaving journalists and proprietors in a legal and security limbo, unclear of their rights and the parametres within which they are allowed to operate.
On 12 December 2012, South Sudan's National Assembly had a first reading of the media law. No details have been made public on when it will be passed.
But some journalists such as Yak are pessimistic about the difference the new law will make. "I don't think having a law that is not being respected serves anything," Yak told Sudan Tribune.
One of the unofficial red lines in the South Sudanese press is corruption. Without a media law newspapers are vulnerable to being taken to court and accused of defamation without it being clear what level of evidence they need before publishing allegations against senior figures.
Pagan Amum speaking at Chatham House, London 1 May 2012 (Photo: Chatham House)
The most prominent example took place in March last year, when the The Citizen Newspaper and Al Masir were fined 100,000 South Sudanese pounds for defaming SPLM secretary general Pagan Amum. The newspaper had quoted ex-minister of finance Arthur Akuien Chol accusing Amum of receiving a corrupt payment worth $30 million in 2006.
The court later acquitted Amum due to insufficient evidence, but the (CPJ) reported after the case that considering the hefty fines given out by the court "the odds of any journalist in South Sudan investigating the matter further are slim". The prediction appears to be correct as the whereabouts of the money in question has never been discovered.
In such a tribally divided country, South Sudanese journalists also face public criticism. Often accused of siding with tribesmen particularly when covering ethnic violence, threats to journalists' lives also come from the public. A number of reporters, including Sudan Tribune journalists, have been threatened and abused over the phone for covering various stories.
Earlier this month, John Alier, a reporter for Sudan Tribune in Bor, Jonglei state, received 17 phone calls from unknown people threatening his life for covering a local fight in Bor county between two ethnic groups that left two people dead. Alier was told to avoid "indulging in issues of community".
"Some of them [the anonymous callers] told me that 'if national writers like Isaiah Abraham can be killed, then who are you?'" Alier said.
Another freelance journalist in Juba, Machel Amos, says friends alerted him that the security services were trailing him recently in connection to an article he wrote in 2010.
Despite the warning he told Sudan Tribune that he does not plan to stop writing.
"I have not stopped, and plan not to stop writing because it is my favourite job. What matters a lot to me is to be within the frame of professionalism in my writings," Amos said.
In 2011 another Sudan Tribune journalist was detained illegally without charge for 18 days by security forces after a newspaper he worked for in Juba published an article criticising the marriage of the president's daughter to an Ethiopian man.
Despite not writing or personally approving the comment piece, the journalist was repeatedly tortured and beaten while in custody and denied access to a lawyer or medical care.
Such incidents have dampened much of the optimism that came with South Sudan's independence. Many observers say the South Sudanese government is currently at a crossroads in terms of according the fundamental freedoms the SPLM says it stood for during the civil war to its citizens now the movement has become the ruling party.
The Southern Sudan Union of Journalists (SSUJ), a fledgling body that doesn't include many reporters could not be reached for comment as its head, Philip Atem, did not respond to calls or messages seeking reaction on this story.
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