JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN —
Journalists and U.N. officials on Wednesday hailed South Sudan's decision to be a pilot country for a United Nations initiative aimed at creating a free and safe environment for media workers.
Journalist Elam Denis Ejulu welcomed Juba's decision to be the pilot country for the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists
, saying it would help to protect "journalists against harassment."
It was also "long overdue," he said.
"We lack media laws in this country. We have been on self-censorship for fear of getting into trouble with the authorities."
Freelance journalist Joseph Oduha called the initiative "something that can really help," but voiced concern over whether there are safeguards in place in the event that the government should violate the terms of the initiative.
According to the UN News Service, the U.N.'s Special Representative to South Sudan, Hilde Johnson, said in a statement released on Sunday that, "The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) welcomes the Government's decision to increase the safety of journalists in the country and address the issue of impunity."
The U.N. plan outlines a series of activities to be put in place including helping the government to develop laws that safeguard journalists; developing safety training courses for journalists; establishing real-time emergency response mechanisms; and strengthening the safety of journalists in conflict zones, among others.
It also calls for defamation to be decriminalized, for more protection for women journalists "in response to the increasing incidence of sexual harassment and rape," and adequate pay for media workers.
UNMISS spokesperson Kouider Zerouk said, "It shows the determination of the government and its commitment to take this issue and to resolve it through the legal framework, which is the respect of human rights in general and the respect of freedom of expression and safety journalists.”
He also said the initiative was "very timely as we have had reports about harassment of journalists, for instance," without going into detail.
UNMISS recently reported that two members of its human rights staff were "interrogated following their inquiries into the condition of a detained local journalist."
South Sudanese Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said South Sudan will cooperate with the U.N. to implement the initiative and ensure that journalists are protected.
But Marial called on the U.N. to also educate journalists, saying: "Some of our journalists need further training so that they also know their responsibilities..."
South Sudan ranked 124th out of 179 countries -- 13 places down from the previous ranking -- in the 2013 World Press Freedom Index
compiled by Reporters Without Borders.
The fall in the rankings came "after the murder of a columnist – the first killing
of its kind in the new country – as news organizations and journalists awaited the approval of three new laws on the media," Reporters without Borders said.
South Sudan has not yet passed any media laws.