South Sudanese President Salva Kiir is not trying to stifle the debate about whether South Sudan should switch to a federal system of government, his spokesman said Wednesday.
Presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny also insisted that the debate on federalism -- a system under which power is shared between states and the central government -- has not created divisions in President Kiir’s government or put critics of the presidential system president in danger.
"There is no way the president could conspire... to eliminate critics simply because they are talking of federalism,” Ateny said.
Stoked by social media
Ateny said social media were largely to blame for spreading false information among South Sudanese and stoking fears among the population.
“These rumors of spies being sent out, people are going to be assassinated and you name it are just the creation of the social media. There is no plan of that kind. There is nobody who has been arrested," Ateny said.
Before he was named Mr Kiir’s spokesman, Ateny said, he was one of the biggest critics of the government, and nothing ever happened to him.
There is no way the president could conspire... to eliminate critics simply because they are talking of federalism.
“I could have been one of the people who could have been behind bars," he said. "I don’t think there is anybody who has challenged any establishment more than me, among you here. I have done that, I have never been arrested.”
Ateny spoke to South Sudan in Focus a day after newspaper and broadcast editors wrote a letter to Information Minister Michael Makuei, complaining that people claiming to be government security agents have ordered them not to report on the debate about federalism.
In April, South Sudanese journalists complained that media rights are being severely eroded.
"There is a lot of government interference, there is a lot of harassment, a lot of intimidation by government officials," veteran journalist Alfred Taban said at the time.
"That means that the media cannot really play its role, which is to educate, to entertain and to inform the people,” Taban said, adding that things have become worse since the country plunged into violence in December.
Ateny, who was a civil society activist prior to his appointment as presidential spokesman, said reporters should inform him when journalists are arrested for criticizing Mr. Kiir or his government.
But journalists are skeptical that the government will take any action on their behalf. They often cite the case of political commentator Isaiah Abraham, a staunch critic of Mr. Kiir who was killed by gunmen suspected of belonging to the South Sudanese security forces.
The government launched an investigation into Abraham's murder, but no one has ever been detained for it.