Juba — South Sudan's security services on Friday ordered management of the state owned South Sudan television (SSTV) to refrain from covering activities involving vice president Riek Machar, a source told Sudan Tribune.
However, media official at the office of the vice-president played down reports on censorship imposed on the coverage of Machar's activities, stressing that no such measures can be taken against "the top boss" of the South Sudanese government during Kiir's absence.
Security officials, who warned of tough measures if SSTV journalists fail to implement the directive, did not give any reason for the move, which comes a day after privately owned Citizen Television was given a similar directive.
These developments coincided with president Salva Kiir's trip to Japan and recent reports about competition within the presidency over the leadership of the ruling Sudan people's Liberation Movement (SPLM).
Responding to Thursday's claims by Citizen Television, Machar's press secretary, James Gadet Dak, told Sudan Tribune, that the vice president's the office only became aware of the allegations after reading Sudan Tribune's story.
"We are not aware of official policy or decision that restricts media coverage on political activities. What I know is that the vice-president, who currently acts in the absence of the president, is the top boss of all the government's institutions that are under the executive, including the security organs," he said.
"And I can assure you that he did not authorise that action as acting head of the government," he said. The state-owned television and radio have normally been broadcasting the activities of Machar's office, including political functions, he said.
Dak added that if the independent media were facing difficulties in freely covering apolitical events, they should raise their complaints to the ministry of information and broadcasting.
The South Sudanese president was seen off at Juba airport by senior officials including Machar, who in April was stripped of powers delegated to him by the president, after reports emerged that his deputy was considering standing for the chairmanship of South Sudan's ruling party (SPLM) at an upcoming convention.
There are fears among Kiir's supporters in the SPLM that he might loss his seat in the upcoming national convention to elect chairperson of the governing SPLM and then be in prime position to be the ruling party's candidate for the 2015 presidential elections.
"It has been more than one month now since security agents started being harsh on our activities, forcing us to be selective in what we report about activities involving the vice president", a presenter with the state-owned television told Sudan Tribune Friday.
SSTV's management, the journalist said, do not want to be seen as a tool disseminating political activities favouring particular politicians. The presenter, who wished to remain anonymous, said that "security services have increased threats on what we cover, especially meetings by the vice president".
Concerning the reports on restrictions imposed on the SSTV journalists, Dak stressed that Machar activities are well broadcast on the state-owned TV and radio. But he however admitted they are subjected to some pressures.
"I sometimes receive complaints from South Sudan TV about the behaviour of some security agents who agitate that the TV presenters and reporters should not broadcast some of the political opinions stated by the Vice President", he said.
Journalists claimed that security agents often acted on the directives of individuals in the office of the president when threatening sections of the media who are critical of the performance of Kiir's administration.
The presenter said some colleagues had, in the past, received threats and others were arbitrarily arrested, pointing out that it was not just the private media facing such mistreatment.
Journalists from independent media organisations "are seriously criticising our coverage and reporting on the national activities without taking into consideration [the] challenges we are facing".
State media staff had been "threatened at gun point for technical faults", the reporter said.
Last year, journalists from the state broadcaster were arrested in Wau on suspicion of refusing to cover a speech by president Kiir in aftermath of protests against the Western Bahr el Ghazal government over the relocation an administrative centre. South Sudanese police were accused of shooting dead eight protestors, according to rights groups who say that the events have not been properly investigated.
John Garang, a SSTV presenter was last year arrested by security agents for allegedly allowing footage to be broadcast showing Kiir "in unclear and gloomy appearance".
Dak advised TV personnel who complained to take up the matter to the ministry of information and broadcasting under which they operate and then see the way forward from that level.
Since independence in 2011, South Sudanese authorities have been reticent to allow freedom of expression among human rights activists and the press - some of the stated aims of the SPLM during the civil war - according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
CPJ recently wrote an open letter to Kiir asking him to do more to ensure press freedom and end the self censorship which journalists say they have been forced into over the actions of the security services, human rights and corruption.
Washington's envoy to Juba, Susan Page, said recently that the US government was "very concerned about the deteriorating levels of press freedom" in the young nation, which has been increasingly criticised for its human rights record by the countries that supported its independence.