Nairobi — South Sudanese authorities should immediately release a journalist who has been arbitrarily detained, Human Rights Watch said today.
The National Security Service (NSS) arrested and detained Emmanuel Monychol Akop, the managing editor of The Dawn newspaper after he answered a summons on October 21, 2019 to appear at the security service headquarters in Jebel neighborhood of Juba. Credible sources told Human Rights Watch that Monychol's arrest appears to be linked to an October 15 Facebook post in which he poked fun at the dress worn by the foreign affairs and international cooperation minister, Awut Deng Achuil.
"Emmanuel Monychol's detention is just the latest act of harassment by South Sudanese authorities in response to criticism or perceived dissent," said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The authorities should immediately release him unless he has been charged with a recognizable offense."
Four days after Monychol's arrest, he was released on bail to attend the burial of a relative and other family functions. He responded to a second security service summons on November 4 and has been in custody ever since. On October 29, while out on bail, Monychol apologized to the minister for his comments on Facebook, which were also published by The Dawn newspaper the next day. Since 2017, the minister has had a defamation case in the high court in Juba against Monychol and The Dawn newspaper.
Monychol's detention appears to be part of a broader crackdown by South Sudanese authorities to silence criticism by the media, nongovernmental groups, opposition parties, and National Assembly members. Since conflict broke out in South Sudan in December 2013, the NSS has spread a climate of fear and terror, targeting critics and perceived dissidents with arbitrary arrest and detention and torture and other ill-treatment. This has led to self-censorship in which human rights activists, journalists, critics of the government, and ordinary people no longer feel safe to speak freely and openly about topics deemed controversial.
The National Security Service Act (2015) grants the security agency sweeping powers to arrest, detain, conduct searches, and seize property. The law, however, requires the NSS to bring detainees before a magistrate or judge within 24 hours of their detention. Detainees under NSS detention are often kept in poor conditions including in congested cells with inadequate access to food, water, and medical care.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on South Sudanese authorities to ensure that the NSS powers are limited to intelligence gathering, as envisioned by the Transitional Constitution of 2012, which mandates the agency to "focus on information gathering, analysis and to advice the relevant authorities." Human Rights Watch has recommended that the powers to arrest, detain, conduct searches, seize property, and use force be excluded from the agency's authority, and should instead be exercised by an appropriate law enforcement agency.
South Sudan's "revitalized" peace deal signed in September 2018 provides for the review of security sector laws including the NSS Act by the National Constitutional Amendment Committee. In January, this committee submitted proposed amendments to the NSS Act to the Justice Ministry for deliberations and for presentation before the National Assembly. The ministry has yet to transmit the amendments to the assembly.
"South Sudan's authorities should expedite action on the necessary reforms to curb the security agency's broad powers and ensure full compliance with existing legal safeguards," Segun said. "They should also ensure broad-based, public, and transparent consultations during the review process."