Fifteen months after South Sudan became a pilot country for a United Nations initiative aimed at creating a free and safe environment for journalists
, some of the country's leading media voices say they are being muzzled by government censorship and interference.
“The media is not free at all," veteran journalist Alfred Taban told South Sudan in Focus
, days before World Press Freedom Day, on May 3.
"There is a lot of government interference. There is a lot of harassment. There is a lot of intimidation by government officials. That means that the media cannot really play its role, which is to educate, to entertain and to inform the people,” he said, adding that things have become worse since the country plunged into violence in December.
Newspaper seized for criticizing government
Taban, who is editor-in-chief of the daily Juba Monitor, said security officials have confiscated his entire print run four times since the fighting broke out on Dec. 15.
Each time, he was told the paper was seized because it included a story that was critical of the government of President Salva Kiir.
A montage of an issue of the Juba Monitor newspaper that was seized last year for criticizing an official, with an an excerpt from the UN Plan for the Safety of Journalists. Four print runs of the Juba Monitor have been seized since South Sudan erupted in violence in December.
Other journalists have been questioned by security forces, and an Al Jazeera reporter was asked to leave South Sudan after a report he filed sparked panic in the capital, Juba.
In March, presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny said National Security has not brought in any journalists for questioning but has offered them "advice because some journalists are very irresponsible and they write very irresponsibly."
Albino Tokwaro Fabiano, director of Juba-based Bakhita Radio, said he has re-oriented his outlet's coverage since South Sudan erupted in fighting.
“Before the conflict, we were working normally. But after the conflict started ... We have to make a lot of peace-building programs and this was an achievement that I think we did during this time of problems," he said.
The media cannot really play its role, which is to educate, to entertain and to inform the people.
Taban said reporters and editors know they are taking a risk when they stray from broadcasting or publishing messages of peace and report on hard news.
"The authorities, they don’t want journalists to practice their real profession in a professional manner… It becomes very difficult to send out reporters to go to some areas," he said, adding that while messages of peace are worth spreading, there is other news that the South Sudanese people need to know.
According to South Sudan's Information Minister Michael Makuei that news cannot include coverage of rebels opposed to the government.
Makuei told South Sudan in Focus in an interview in March t
hat any reporters who broadcast or publish interviews with rebel leaders inside South Sudan are engaging in "subversive activity" and breaking the law.
But a South Sudanese legal expert who asked not to be named for reasons of personal safety said South Sudan's penal code "does not bar journalists from broadcasting interviews with rebels. Everyone in South Sudan has the right to attain any interview," said the expert, speaking to VOA last month from an undisclosed country of exile.
Unless it has been amended recently, the legal exert said, the country's constitution also guarantees South Sudanese the "right to communicate freely."
In a separate interview, South Sudanese presidential spokesman Ateny said freedom of speech is guaranteed under South Sudan's constitution,
but "has limitations."