Voice of America (Washington, DC)

1 July 2014

South Sudan: Is South Sudan Government Trying to Mute Federalism Debate?

Photo: Hannah McNeish/IRIN
Former teacher Mary Venerato Laki teaching in transit site.

South Sudanese media bosses have sent a letter to Information Minister Michael Makuei, asking if the government was behind an order not to publish or broadcast information about a federal system of government, a local newspaper said.

The Citizen Daily newspaper reported on Tuesday that, "Editors of media houses ... convened a forum to write to the Minister of Information to seek clarification on verbal directives by security personnel to desist from publishing disseminations related to federalism in the country."

According to the paper, the editors' letter to Makuei says that "individuals purporting to work for security agencies... are going around and issuing verbal directives to editors not to publish any articles on the federalism debate."

The editors go on to say in the letter that, in spite of the warnings, they intend to "continue to give a platform to all sides to... freely air views, because not doing so violates the right of freedom of expression," Citizen Daily said.

If the warning is confirmed as being from official sources, it would "paint the government in a bad light at a time when the government needs all the goodwill to resolve our current crises," the editors wrote in the letter.

Government denies involvement

Presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny denied that the government has banned public debate about federalism.

"The debate about federalism or any system of governance is enshrined under the freedom of expression under Article 24 of the constitution, so we cannot curtail anybody's freedom of speech, about any system of governance they might want to discuss, " he said.

"The journalists might not be saying the truth because the president has not issued any order so far," he said.

Ateny said President Salva Kiir's priority is to restore peace in South Sudan, not to engage in a debate about what system of governance the country should have. Once South Sudan is at peace again, Ateny said Mr. Kiir would support a referendum to decide what the right system of governance should be.

Ban on interviews with rebels

A government ban on the discussion about federalism would not be a first in South Sudan. In March, Makuei told South Sudan in Focus that reporters who broadcast or publish interviews with rebel leaders inside South Sudan are engaging in "subversive activity."

"When you come and disseminate this poisonous information inside South Sudan, it is an offense," said Makuei, a lawyer by profession.

But a South Sudanese legal expert told VOA at the time that South Sudan's penal code "does not bar journalists from broadcasting interviews with rebels."

The expert, who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity from an undisclosed country of exile, added that the constitution guarantees South Sudanese the "right to communicate freely."

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