Those working for the media in South Sudan say they are under more pressure than ever, prompting many reporters to hide, quit their profession or steer away from controversial reporting.
Among those who have fled is a South Sudanese journalist, who declined to be identified, who was pursued by national security after investigating a corruption case. “They began searching for me to arrest me,” he said. “They also arrested my relatives to try to get them to reveal my whereabouts.”
I don’t feel safe as a journalist here. But to keep safe I turn a blind eye on sensitive stories.”
Another journalist reporting from Juba reported a recent spike in tensions, forcing him to self-censor his writing. “I don’t feel safe as a journalist here. But to keep safe I turn a blind eye on sensitive stories, I always let my family know where I am going, and I try to return home early,” he said, also declining to be identified.
He said South Sudan’s media would remain weak and one-sided amid the fear and tension, adding that it won’t be able to play a watchdog role or hold the government accountable to its citizens. A number of journalists still working in South Sudan, described how they operate tight self-censorship and adhere rigidly to the government’s narrative of events.
Tom Rhodes, East Africa representative for press freedom group Committee to Protect Journalists, said pressures on journalists had reached a boiling point. “Unfortunately we are witnessing more and more cases of professional South Sudanese journalists fleeing the country to the point where media houses that are not linked to the state may have to close simply due to human resource problems,” he said.
Journalists are the target of popular suspicion and sometimes vicious online hate speech, and national security units have issued threats to a number of reporters. The result is that many journalists are too fearful to go on the record about their professions.
One journalist and photographer told The Niles how he had been repeatedly arrested and intimidated, including once being picked up from his office by national security to warn him not to continue reporting. “Unfortunately I just can’t answer your questions,” he said. “It’s not safe.”
This year alone, eight journalists have died in South Sudan, including Peter Moi a journalist working for the New Nation newspaper and the Corporate newspaper weekly, who was shot twice in the back late at night in Juba three weeks ago. The Committee to Protect Journalists has deemed South Sudan a deadly place to operate as a journalist.
Peter died just days after President Salva Kiir uttered a thinly-veiled threat to journalists. “If any journalists do not know that this country has killed people, we shall demonstrate it one day one time,” he said en route to peace talks in Ethiopia.
His words and the subsequent killing sparked indignation and criticism from around the world but a presidential spokesman said Kiir’s words had been taken out of context. “This was just a reminder to South Sudanese journalists, not a threat against journalists as it was distorted,” the presidency said in a statement.
Officials have said that the police would investigate the killing, although, there is no sign of an official report yet.
A radio journalist who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, described the mistrust which overshadowed his daily “The only way I keep myself safe from attacks is by being careful who I am in contact with. I sometimes change my number after every three months as a precaution for safety,” he said.
The climate of fear may have intensified recently, but South Sudan has a longer history of repression. On December 5, 2012, journalist and blogger Isaiah Diing Abraham Chan Isaiah was shot dead by unidentified men in Gudele, a suburb of Juba. According to a member of Isaiah’s family, the gunmen came to Isaiah’s home a little after midnight, asked him to come outside, and then shot him and took his cellphone.
Isaiah was the first journalist to die after South Sudan became independent in 2011. His colleagues said that Isaiah, an reputed political commentator and former fighter for South Sudanese freedom, had been threatened several times and was asked to stop writing prior to his death. There was no official report released into the killing.
I quit because there was no reason to hang on to a career that had no respect for women and no right to free speech.”
Female journalists, who are a clear minority, also face specific obstacles. Sarah Keji, a former journalist at The Citizen and The Juba Post newspapers ditched her profession four years ago. “I quit because there was no reason to hang on to a career that had no respect for women and no right to free speech,” she said. “When I joined the Juba Post in 2010, I was excited about having a chance to speak out about the many challenges in my country, but once I realised I couldn’t speak, I saw no reason to stay.”
She described a turning point as the day her colleague Anne Luate was beaten by two SPLM soldiers at the Garang Mausoleum where they had gone to cover the celebration to commemorate Dr Garang’s death. “It was awful,” she said. “She later left journalism, so did I. I hate being a journalist in this country.”
Media houses are also under pressure. Several newspapers and broadcast stations have been closed by security personnel without any notice or a court warrant. The Citizen newspaper, a daily paper that had been operating since 2006 was closed down by the gorvernment last month.
Christopher Opoka, former editor at the Juba Post and now a senior communications associate in South Sudan, described how the national security force once picked up the entire staff of the Juba Post newspaper and drove them away and locked them in a room until the evening. Later the journalists discovered, the threat was in retaliation for a headline which had actually run in the Southern Eye newspaper, a completely different newspaper.
Tom Rhodes, from the Committee to Protect Journalists, believes South Sudan can only achieve media freedom if the leader is involved. He pointed a finger at the myriad of security organs who operate with near total autonomy and impunity. “Kiir must reign in these security organs who have been assigned to silence the regime’s critics, including critical media houses,” he said.
But many journalists expressed doubt that South Sudan will achieve media freedom anytime soon. “The future of South Sudan is very dangerous,” one journalist in exile said. “This is a setback on the country’s progress.”