opinionBy Mading Ngor
Calgary, Alberta, Canada — Imagine a child, born, eyeless; earless and mouth-less. Imagine if the baby was a country, so precious, so new, and millions of its people died for its birth.
Welcome to South Sudan, a country where freedom fever is frying as an idea at the core of its founding, freedom of speech, comes under fire.
For a while journalists and citizens of the new nation were riding a deceitful, if ephemeral honeymoon bandwagon of a truly free press ready to spread its wings and leapfrog into the 21st Century.SSTV
Even Reporters Without Borders cautiously lauded this apparent good news in its inaugural report that "The country has so far benefitted from sustained attention from the international community, which has encouraged it to protect fundamental freedoms."
To its credit, the body followed the optimistic assessment with a prescient warning: "But once the post-independence honeymoon is over, there is always a danger that it could slide into repression and dictatorship instead of continuing the positive progress."
Truly, somehow, somewhere, along the Nile, the freedom bandwagon overturned. The country's press has graduated, alas! digressed from an oppressed press to a persecuted one.
With frequent assaults on the nascent media, the country's increasingly tyrannical rulers are aborting freedom before it blossoms.
The honeymoon ended in December when a high impact columnist, government critic and former freedom fighter, Isaiah Abraham Diing Chan, was gunned down in his home in Juba.
The killing numbed rights groups and South Sudanese who ascribed a more hopeful vision for the country. What a terrible epiphany!
The savage murder, called by government what everybody suspected, assassination, woke up many from slumber of a self-fulfilling myth that South Sudan was morally superior to Sudan, the former pariah state.
The slaying, I believe, marked one of key moments when Juba began to lurch after Khartoum into totalitarianism. Juba launched a prompt probe into the killing, took the unusual step of putting a bounty on the killers and invited the FBI to help out in the investigation. And yet, so far, we don't know who eliminated South Sudan's first martyr of freedom of press.
The government maintains that some suspects have been arrested and that the investigation continues, but a relative of the late columnist said the family is unhappy about the sluggish process.
To be a principled journalist in the new nation is to invite trouble in the country where absence of media laws impedes the practitioners' work.
These laws were initially taken to parliament in '08, were retracted, and then sent back to the assembly two months ago amid fanfare, again into oblivion.
Journalists face onslaught of arbitrary arrests, harassments, beatings and now, death.
Enacting the media bills into law will represent a bold step forward in the fight against press suppression. Even so, the country's national security agencies are politicized to the extent that they put the President ahead of the nation. Press freedom can only reign when nepotism gives way to meritocracy in the employment of security personnel.
In the past attacks on journalists were seen as non-structural. That's no longer the case. Systematic repression has kicked in.
My experience as a former radio host in the country and some worrisome recent developments are cases in point.
Wake Up Juba, my former breakfast show at Radio Bakhita, used to be targeted for fostering critical across the political spectrum debates about current affairs.
In October last year, shortly after an unpopular agreement was signed with Sudan, the national security asked my former boss to choose between the show and the Catholic owned station. The director forwarded the message to the administration which sat on it.
Subsequently, the security held a pivotal meeting with local media organizations and journalists, except Bakhita. I heard it was a referendum on Wake Up, Juba! "You were put on trial in absentia," a journalist told me. "You must support the agreement," the local press was instructed. "Don't be like Wake Up, Juba!"
Some friends recommended that I sit down with junior security officers responsible for my 'file' to resolve the issue amicably. My first meeting with them at a hotel was successful. They referred me to their superiors.
At a final meeting at security headquarters a conclusive message boiled down to 'cooperation' or as they reminded me, subtly: "We've 'orders' and we know where you live and who your friends are."
That evening, a neighbour at a compound where I stayed told me to 'watch out.' She had seen a guy whose room was adjacent to mine knock on my door, clad in full national security uniform. I spent what proved to be my last weekend in Juba sleeping at the radio's studio.
On Monday morning of October 15, 2012, I hosted my last show and took off for the airport... and that's how I left the country.
Over a month later Isaiah was "shot in the head," wrote a whistleblower, who claimed to be a former security agent. He also alleged that I and several critics are on security death list.
More death threats are coming in. A week ago, a prolific blogger critical of government found a message tucked under his pillow:
"STOP IT OR GET THIS ISAIAH ABRAHAM'S NEW YEAR'S GIFT FROM CORPSS (Committee for Operation Restore Patriotism in South Sudan)."
The 'gift' was a parcel containing "two jaw bones still rotting with a bullet stuck in between two pieces of flesh," the blogger said in a note.
And just this week, Garang John, a news editor at state-owned TV was detained on Thursday by national security for refusing to erase archived files to free up space for new footage. "I rejected that because why should we delete history?" he said in an emailed response.
When Garang walked to his car that evening, he found security waiting for him. "These guys said I should give them a lift to our gate but from there they told me to continue to their office."
At their headquarters he was disarmed of his possessions and told to follow an agent. "He opened the room and locked me in.
"That was it. I spent the night locked up but I didn't know the reason for my arrest."
The next day, during an investigation, he was accused of broadcasting "Poor video footages of the President on the TV." Garang says he has minimal link to President's press unit: "They bring their work edited with orders not to touch."
By depriving the young media of its 'senses', the South Sudanese government not only jettisons the much hyped 'democracy', but it also drives on a fast lane to state collapse.
Mading Ngor Akec Kuai, an award-winning former host of a popular breakfast show called Wake-Up Juba, is Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of The New Sudan Vision.