Journalists in both Sudan and South Sudan say threats, intimidation and arbitrary arrests are part of everyday life, limiting their ability to inform the public.
South Sudan ranks 128th and Sudan ranks 151st out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index, released Tuesday to coincide with the United Nations’ annual recognition of World Press Freedom Day. The bigger the number, the worse the environment for news media.
Irene Ayaa of the Association for Media Development in South Sudan says government censorship in her country is widespread.
"Last month, we registered four articles removed from newspapers," she said.
Between January and March alone, security personnel removed dozens of articles from the Juba Monitor, Anna Namiriano, editor-in-chief of an English-language daily, told South Sudan in Focus. "They removed stories and we left the space blank. They say why we are not listening to them, so on 17th of March, they suspended the newspaper."
In February, a handful of journalists were briefly detained for covering a press conference by opposition lawmakers in parliament. A Juba Monitor newspaper article about the incident was removed by security agents at the printing plant.
"We don’t have freedom of the press in the country," Namiriano said. "The solution is let us do our work as media houses. We have the code of conduct, we have the media law to guide us, and removal of stories is really very bad."
South Sudan’s information minister, Michael Makuei, insists press freedom is alive and well in his country.
"South Sudan is the only place where journalists are free, where they enjoy absolute freedom according to the law. I say, 'according to the law,' because there is nothing absolute in this world," Makuei told South Sudan in Focus.
The United Nations Commission on Human Rights refutes that assertion. In a report issued last October, it said the government is harassing activists, journalists and their families, limiting their activities and targeting their work and finances. South Sudan is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist, according to the commission.
"South Sudan has a lot of work to do to establish and solidify the institutions that are critical to a well-functioning democratic state," David Renz, charge d’affaires for the U.S. Embassy in South Sudan, said in a statement Tuesday, adding that the U.S. remains deeply concerned about the state of press freedom in South Sudan.
"We have seen some of the local radio stations shut down over very trivial matters," Renz said. "And we also are aware that journalists of radio and television and even social media are self-censored" and wary of local and national governments’ actions "to penalize journalists who say things the government would prefer that they not say."
Further complications from coup
In Sudan, journalists in the capital city of Khartoum say harassment and threats have increased since the October 25 military takeover.
Shoggi Abdulazeem, an investigative journalist in Sudan, said he received a death threat in November and was warned not to speak to international media.
"I was hosting live on Al Jazeera and after leaving their office, eight armed security men followed me in a pickup. They surrounded my car," Abdulazeem said. He told South Sudan in Focus he was blindfolded and moved around "for more than two hours" and was ordered "not to criticize the military again."
Covering pro-democracy protests in Sudan continues to be a dangerous endeavor, Abdulazeem said.
"Many newspapers, TV channels and radio stations received directives not to host or conduct interviews with some named individuals” who criticize military leaders, Abdulazeem said. He added, “There are intelligence officers who are assigned to monitor this situation."
Aisha Assamani, an executive member of the independent Sudanese Media Network, told South Sudan in Focus he has recorded more than 10 attacks on journalists and media houses since last year's coup.
"They are targeting freedom of speech with so much excessive force," Assamani said. "The majority of our journalists now are fearful and their lives are in danger. Most of them remain anonymous due to the danger of the situation."
On December 30, Sudanese security forces stormed the offices of three television stations — al-Arabiya, al-Hadath and al-Sharq — firing tear gas, assaulting staff and destroying broadcast equipment, according to local news media. That same day, security forces detained al-Sharq correspondents Maha Al-Talb and Sally Othman for hours before releasing them.
On January 16, Sudanese authorities withdrew the broadcast license of Al Jazeera Live and closed its office in Khartoum. A letter from the Information Ministry to the director of Al Jazeera television in Sudan attributed the closing to an "unprofessional approach" and media content that "harmed the country’s higher interests and national security." The Doha-based network condemned the closure.
In February, Sudanese authorities arrested a group of BBC reporters in Khartoum and questioned them for several hours before releasing them.
VOA repeatedly called Sudan’s government for comment, but those calls — to Brigadier General Attahir Abu Haja, press advisor to military leader Abdul Fattah al-Burhan — went unanswered.
Michael Atit reported from Khartoum, Sudan; Deng Ghai Deng and Manyang David Mayar reported from Juba, South Sudan.