JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN - A U.N. report says South Sudan’s government continues to censor the media and restrict freedom of expression. The report (Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression in South Sudan) warns that restrictions on freedom of expression are having a “chilling effect” and “are shrinking the space for debate in South Sudan.”
Over the past 18 months, researchers with the U.N. Mission in South Sudan, UNMISS, and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights interviewed victims, witnesses, activists and journalists across South Sudan and documented 99 allegations of rights abuses.
Researchers of the 30-page report released this week said they had verified 60 incidents in which the rights to freedom of expression of 102 victims were violated.
According to a Cessation of Hostilities agreement signed by the government and various South Sudanese stakeholders in December, harassing of media personnel is a violation.
UNMISS chief David Shearer told reporters in Juba on Thursday that most of the incidents occurred in government-controlled areas, and many of the victims were media members.
Muzzling free speech
“Journalists and media workers account for a quarter of these victims. These incidents include the killing of two people, arbitrary arrest and detention of 58 others,16 people who have been dismissed from their jobs, the closure or suspension of media houses, censorship of newspaper articles and blocking of websites. Those targeted were deemed critical of the government and accused of tarnishing the country’s reputation,” Shearer said.
The report named the National Security Service, or NSS, the police, the army, and government officials at national and state levels, along with the South Sudan Media Authority as responsible for muzzling free speech.
The report also singled out the National Security Service as the main perpetrator responsible for 33 percent of the violations, followed by the South Sudan army, the SPLA.
No comment from military
VOA's South Sudan in Focus program made repeated calls to the Ministry of Information and government spokesperson Michael Makuei for comment on the report but has received no response.
South Sudan military spokesman Brigadier General Lul Ruai Koang told South Sudan in Focus he had not seen the U.N. report and could not comment in detail. He said he was not aware of any government soldiers muzzling the media.
“Since I assumed office about two years ago, it has not been reported in our office that the SPLA had harassed or arrested any foreign journalists. The primary responsibility lies with the South Sudan Media Authority — that is the body that allows foreign journalists to come into the country,” said Koang.
Elijah Alier, head of the media authority, declined to comment on the report, adding he needed time to read it.
Security Service embeds officers
Eugene Nindorera, who heads the human rights division at UNMISS, said most of the verified incidents occurred in government-controlled areas.
He said researchers could not travel to rebel-controlled areas to investigate reported abuses because of a lack of security.
Nindorera said South Sudan’s National Security Service embeds its officers in some newspapers’ printing establishments, forcing South Sudanese journalists to employ self-censorship.
But Nindorera said the government showed a gesture of goodwill last month.
“A number of positive initiatives were undertaken by the government, civil society and other stakeholders. This includes release of several political activists and journalists who have been arbitrarily held in government custody; provisions of educational opportunity to strengthen national capacities for responsible journalism; training of state authorities and permissible restriction to the exercise of freedom of expression; and efforts made to address certain incidents of hate speech. However, the report highlights that gaps remain,” said Nindorera.
Atem Simon, an editor at the Juba-based al-Mougif newspaper, said his organization struggles to report stories in a professional way.
“We have faced many challenges, especially under government directives that we should not balance our stories; we have to report from one side, report on a very crucial issue that needed the stories to be professional,” Simon told South Sudan in Focus.
Denis Elamu, another Juba-based journalist, said he welcomed the report, saying it highlighted the biggest challenge facing the media industry across South Sudan.
“There must be some kind of solution to end this conflict, because this all is a result of the ongoing conflict,” Elamu told South Sudan in Focus.
The report said genuine reconciliation and lasting peace could be achieved in South Sudan only if people are free and safe to express their opinions regardless of ethnic or political affiliation.