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South Sudan Editor Says His Paper Ordered to Close

A montage of the Juba Monitor newspaper and an excerpt from the UN Plan for the Safety of Journalists. The paper's editor, Alfred Taban, says it has been ordered to close.
A montage of the Juba Monitor newspaper and an excerpt from the UN Plan for the Safety of Journalists. The paper's editor, Alfred Taban, says it has been ordered to close.

A veteran journalist and editor from South Sudan said Friday that the National Security Service ordered his staff to shut down the Juba Monitor newspaper over reports that the government considered "against the system."

Alfred Taban, the editor of the Juba Monitor, said the paper's editorial director was odered Thursday to come to National Security headquarters.

"When she went, they told her that they have decided to close down the Juba Monitor -- my newspaper -- because, they said, there were two articles that were very much against the system," Taban said.

One of the articles was about the 13-month conflict in South Sudan. The author of the article said the two main tribes, the Dinka and the Nuer, "...are fighting for supremacy in this country at the expense of all others,” Taban said.

The government of President Salva Kiir -- and Mr. Kiir himself -- have repeatedly denied that the conflict has ethnic overtones. But international observers, including former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, who is chairing an African Union Commission of Inquiry into rights abuses in South Sudan, have said that although the crisis might have begun as a political row between Mr Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, it quickly turned ethnic.

Attacking Mr. Kiir

Taban said even reports about events in Warrap state, which is where Mr. Kiir hails from, are viewed by the National Security Service as an attack on the president.

He said the same journalist who was taken to task for saying the conflict has an ethnic dimension was criticized for a story in which the security forces said the writer accused "... the people of Warrap of neglecting their own people in the state," Taban said.

"They say these two articles are very bad and that means Juba Monitor is completely against the system and they have decided to close it down,” the paper's editor said.

Taban is reported to have apologized for the two articles and was allowed to publish the paper on Friday. He called on the United States to pressure the government to stop interfering with the work of South Sudanese journalists and to respect their right to a free speech.

"The U.S. government can help us by sending a very strong message to the government that what it is doing is not in the interest of this country. I think the U.S. government has not been talking with a very strong voice. I mean, if they had been talking with a very strong voice, the government would have noted this," Taban said.

Media laws

Mr. Kiir signed three media bills into law last year. Journalists hoped the new laws would strengthen their rights and give them easier access to information.

Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin told South Sudan in Focus last month that the new media laws provide journalists with all the protection they need. If they feel they have been wronged by the security forces or anyone else, they can take the officials to court, he said.

Harassment by the security forces is nothing new at the Juba Monitor. In October, Taban said he was ordered not to publish the opinions of rebels. In April, Taban told South Sudan in Focus that the paper's print-run had been confiscated four times, or roughly once a month, since fighting broke out in South Sudan on Dec. 15, 2013.

Each time, Taban said he was told the paper was seized because it included a story that was critical of Mr. Kiir's government.

β€œThe media is not free at all," Taban said at the time.

"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.

For reasons of personal security, the South Sudanese journalist who wrote this article has asked to remain anonymous.