Wednesday was World Press Freedom Day, but in South Sudan, journalists say freedom to do their work has all but disappeared. Alfred Taban, editor in chief of the independent Juba Monitor, says his English-language newspaper is routinely censored by security agents prior to publishing.
Taban was arrested last year for writing an editorial calling for South Sudan’s leaders to step down.
“In July when I wrote that President Kiir and the then-First Vice President Dr. Riek Machar should be removed because they have failed to bring peace to this country, on that same day I was arrested. And I stayed in detention for close to two weeks," he tells VOA's South Sudan in Focus.
Freelance journalist Gale Julius, who writes for the Catholic-owned Bakhita Radio in Juba, says he got into trouble several times for snapping photos in the capital, Juba.
Once instance came during a trial of officials accused of trying overthrow President Salva Kiir. "That was a day when one of the big men in national security came to testify and they told me they did not want their photos taken. When they took me to the security offices they didn’t beat me, but it was what they said about journalists, the names they call us. It is really very disturbing,” Julius says.
Julius was also arrested for taking photos of Juba residents who spent the night a makeshift clinic offering free medical services. He says security agents did not want him to report the true picture of how desperate South Sudanese are for health care.
Government says journalists are free
South Sudan Information Minister Michael Makuei insists that contrary to reports like these, journalists working in South Sudan are free.
"The way people behave undermines the law. Journalists are free, but it is not absolute freedom. If there is any country in the world where there is absolute freedom of press, you can inform me,” he told South Sudan in Focus.
World Press Freedom Day was proclaimed by the U.N. General Assembly in 1993. Besides promoting the rights of journalists, the day also pays tribute to reporters who have been killed.
The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks South Sudan as the 5th most dangerous country for journalists in its annual index. Seven South Sudanese journalists were killed by unknown gunmen in 2015. Another was killed in July 2016.
Despite the dangers, many reporters told VOA they will carry on, because they believe journalists play a critical role in the drive to achieve peace in conflict-ridden South Sudan.
Mary Ajith, deputy chairman of the Association of Media Development in South Sudan, said peace should be the core responsibility of every journalist.
“Through the articles we write, whether on the website or in newspapers, these articles work towards peace in our country,” Ajith tells South Sudan in Focus.
Koang Pal Chang is an editor at Eye Radio, a station shut down last year by national security operatives after it aired the voice of rebel leader Riek Machar.
Pal said despite the hardships, he will not give up his work.
“People want to know what is happening with the peace agreement, with the national dialogue, what is happening with my neighbor, what is happening in that state, what is this U.N. doing?” said Pal.
Rachel Alek works at She magazine, which covers women’s issues. She encourages other South Sudanese journalists to not “choose a tribal line reporting kind of habit, just present what is right and do what you think is ethical.”
Nabeel Biajo, Waakhe Simon Wudu, Ayen Bior contributed to this report.