When unknown gunmen ended the life of my friend and colleague, Peter Julius Moi, on August 19, 2015, life changed for all South Sudan–based journalists, and especially for me. My colleagues and I still mourn the death of Moi, partly because he has died too young.
Moi was a talented, young man full of vigour. He had big plans for the future: When I spoke to him two weeks before the killers took his life, Moi told me his goal of one day running his own newspaper. I believed he would achieve this – he was talented and was always eager to learn. His dream has died with him.
In the meantime, I live in fear – who else will be killed by these “unknown gunmen”? Nowadays I avoid going to public places especially hotels that I used to go to. When I meet unfamiliar faces, I’m fearful about identifying myself as a journalist, unless I really have to.
I know many local reporters who are practicing self-censorship.”
Moi was killed in August which could be described as dark month for members of our trade. Besides the murder of Moi National Security Agents shut down two newspapers (The Citizen, Al Rai) and an independent media development organisation (Free Voice) and several journalists have been threatened.
I personally know a reporter in Bor who was threatened for collecting vox-pops about the peace agreement that President Salva Kiir and rebel leader, Riek Machar signed. I also know another reporter in Juba who was confronted simply because the media house he works for had reported about Kiir’s threat to kill journalists. I know another journalist in Juba who was threatened for reporting a demand by MPs from Greater Equatoria that the government releases former Western Equatoria State governor, Joseph Bangasi Bakasoro after he was dismissed and detained in an unknown location.
Some of these journalists were threatened face-to-face but others have received menacing text messages from unknown phone numbers. I do not know exactly how many journalists fled the country but in the past month several have simply “gone silent” or have “travelled outside the country”, especially to Uganda. I know a few journalists who fled the country, some of them before Moi was killed.
Also in the dark month of August, just days before Moi was killed, President Salva Kiir gave a statement threatening to kill reporters “working against the country”, comments which his office later said were taken out of context.
For several weeks I have been pondering why the harmless journalist is being targeted. I have come to the conclusion that journalists are being targeted because the government believes (perhaps rightly so) that it has a negative image both inside and outside the country. It blames journalists and aid workers for this negative image. That’s why in addition to targeting journalists, several aid workers have been harassed, threatened or even abducted.
The attacks seem to have increased after widely published reports of horrendous abuses carried out by government forces in Unity State. And most recently the government appears to have been angered that media houses were promoting the IGAD-proposed peace deal. There are reasons to believe that the government’s security operatives especially from the National Security Service see journalists as opposition supporters.
Ever since Information Minister, Michael Makuei Lueth banned journalists from reporting the rebel’s views, several local media houses have been reporting one-sided stories for fear of being shut down. And I know many local reporters who are practicing self-censorship. They don’t touch certain stories to avoid being labeled rebel supporters and also, most importantly, to avoid the wrath of National Security Service officials.
I hate the mere idea of practicing self-censorship.”
And although Kiir’s threat to kill journalists who “work against the country” was not a command to anyone to take action, it is possible that some of his supporters who are not necessarily members of the National Security Service could carry out attacks on journalists.
I – and other reporters I‘ve spoken to – hope that the signing of the IGAD-brokered Compromise Peace Agreement will make the environment a bit safer for journalists, especially if the warring parties are able to implement it. But if they fail to introduce peace and if the international community imposes sanctions on the leaders, including Kiir and Machar, then we, members of the fourth estate, will surely face even harder times ahead.
In the meantime I mourn my colleague, friend and brother, and I am troubled that the public which relies on us for balanced information should be denied their right at such a critical time when the nation yarns for unbiased updates on the peace process. In fact, the public, especially in government-controlled areas, only hears government propaganda and hardly ever gets opposition views on the conflict and the peace process.
The situation is even worse outside Juba, especially in rural areas. At least in Juba people have an opportunity to read online publications that are uncensored or listen to reports in the international media to get balanced information.
Personally I am disturbed that I am unable to interview members of the armed opposition and get their views on the peace process and other issues affecting the country. Despite this, I am still trying to provide independent and balanced reports. I hate the mere idea of practicing self-censorship.
However, if this media clampdown continues, I might just leave rather than pretend to report from a country where I am unable to tell the facts, a country where messengers of divergent views are not tolerated.