Alfred Taban, the Editor-in-Chief of the Juba Monitor, one of the most circulated English language newspapers in South Sudan, was arrested on Saturday, July 16, drawing calls from journalists’ and rights groups for his release.
Taban was arrested following the publication of an opinion piece in which he suggested that both, President Salva Kiir and his First Vice President should resign for failing to bring back peace in the country.
The arrest of Alfred Taban is a serious threat to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
Philippe Leruth, President of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), called in a statement that Alfred Taban be released unconditionally. “The arrest of Alfred Taban is a serious threat to freedom of expression and freedom of the press,” Leruth said.
Uganda Journalists Union (UJU) President, Lucy Anyango Ekadu, also condemned Alfred’s arrest. Anyago said that the South Sudan government should respect the principles that govern freedom of expression, press freedom and human rights. “Uganda Journalists Union joins global journalists and human rights organisations in condemning these acts of repression by Juba authorities directed at the journalists,” she said, adding that the government should instead bring him to court “if they think he has a case to answer”.
“The arrest is aimed at scaring off and intimidating South Sudan journalists from critical reporting,” said Stephen Ouma Bwire, General Secretary of Uganda Journalists Union.
Oliver Modi, Chairperson Union of Journalist in South Sudan (UJOSS), said Alfred Taban is illegally detained as security operatives didn’t take the right procedures. “What I know is that the security will come arrest you if there is anything that in their interpretations is not good. They will detain you and just release you whenever they want. This is not the first and not the last time they are doing that,” Modi said.
Modi said as well that the action taken by the government in Taban’s case is aimed at intimidating journalists. “When you ask them what next they will say they will produce him to court but they are not doing that.”
UJOSS and other media watchdogs in the country are engaging with members of national security and the ministry of information to release Taban, according to Modi. He said Taban, who is ailing, should be released so he can be able to seek treatment. Taban’s family members have been allowed to visit him, according to Modi.
“Such arrests are desperate signs of intimidation designed to muzzle the media and journalists. Such repressive highhandedness is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated. South Sudan must do more to create a conducive environment for the media to play its role of upholding democracy in the country,” Philippe Leruth said.
South Sudanese journalists speaking on the condition of anonymity said the arrest of Alfred Taban, considered one of the best mentors in South Sudan, has left them working in fear.
If I am not allowed to express myself, how can I be able to pursue my career.
One journalist said she was contemplating about quitting journalism. “If I am not allowed to express myself, how can I be able to pursue my career,” she said.
“It portrays the Transitional Government of National Unity, TGoNU, […] as a draconian leadership which disobeys the rule of law with impunity,” another journalist said, adding that “I’m being forced into self-censorship which is a poison of free press. And since I can’t report fairly, impartially for fear of joining Mr. Taban in his dungeon, will I still be a journalist?”
One journalists said, after graduating from a journalism school, he thought he was going to be able to help shape the affairs of his nation through media, but this came to pass when columnist Isaiah Abraham was killed in Juba.
“My family was not comfortable with my profession as a journalist given the climate in which journalists are operating in this country. At one point, my brother refused to sleep at home because he feared that if they came for me, they will not want to leave an eye witness and he would also be killed,” he said.
He said he has temporarily quit journalism and will join again when freedom of the press takes hold in South Sudan.
At least nine journalists have been killed since South Sudan has gained independence in July 2011. Two journalists have been killed during violent clashes earlier this month – a cameraman working with the Presidency was killed in a crossfire and John Gatluak Manguet Nhial, a journalist and radio manager for Internews, was killed on July 11, by “unknown gunmen”.
South Sudan has fallen 15 rankings to 140 out of 180 countries in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index. Press freedoms in South Sudan have deteriorated because of the more than two-year-long conflict.